It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


It’s been a while, but I’ve been thinking a lot about adding to the “What Are You Reading Monday?” links. Thank you to Unleashing Readers and Teach Mentor Texts for giving book lovers this opportunity. I’ve again been participating in my summer reading challenge, trying to read a book each day. I’ve been successful so far, and you can see my progress on Goodreads. For now, here are the seven books that I’ve read this week:

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

This book outlines the problems in the classroom that are turning students into non-readers, such as too much emphasis on standardized tests and over-teaching classic literature. It also offers solutions to these problems, such as close reading strategies and an emphasis on independent reading in class. Gallagher has written a book that is a good companion to Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg

When four Grade Six students come together to compete in an academic competition, their teacher can never quite explain why she chose to combine this terrific group. Told from the perspective of each of these four students and their teacher, this book is a pleasant read as it teaches acceptance and companionship despite differences.

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Set in the Middle Ages, this book tells the story of Adam, the son of a wandering minstrel who loses both his father and his dog and must fend for himself for months in various villages surrounding London. The book was a little slow in parts, and had no definitive climax, but it gave great descriptions of life during the 1300’s.

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

This book describes a young girl learning more about herself and her family while on vacation at her grandmother’s seaside cottage. It is a wonderfully calm and earnest read for those who enjoy realistic fiction.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Billy Miller is about to start Grade Two. Throughout the year he will encounter a misunderstanding with his teacher, an annoying classmate, a wonderful yet frustrating younger sister, and a patient mother and father. This book serves as a great introduction to chapter books for young readers.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

Orphan Hattie has been bounced around from one distant relative to another, until she decides to try to settle a land claim in Montana that was left to her by an uncle she never knew existed. This book gives a good view into what life was like for pioneers in 1917, as well as giving insight into how World War I affected the homefront.

Squish: Super Amoeba by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm

In the first graphic novel of the series we are introduced to Squish, a small yet courageous amoeba. Squish wants to do the right thing and protect his friends, even if it means getting eaten by Lynwood, the amoeba bully. The humour is often a little too simplistic for adults, but this would be a good book selection for emergent readers in upper elementary and middle school.

I’ll keep reading, and try to post some more of my book selections next week.

Adventures in Reading – Five Months Later


For the past five months, my students and I have been working on a new reading program that encourages the joy and celebration of reading. I can now give some of the results from my reading endeavour. I am proud of my students, and feel overall that my plans have been successful in that I have created a reading culture in the classroom. Students talk about their books with me, and we have been loaning books to each other and sharing recommendations. I have more reluctant readers choosing to read in class, and choosing books that are outside the genre they are usually attracted to or are at a higher reading level. My two classes met their reading goal of 200 books in January, and are currently at 729 books at last count. Next year I will be sure to continue the strategies that have worked, including:

  1. Allow kids to read what they are interested in. Don’t limit a book or story simply because it is a graphic novel, or you feel the book has no solid reading value. I had a student who started the year reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I, Funny, and is now working his way through the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts. Start at their level, and then continue to introduce books that will pique their interest.
  2. Don’t get discouraged by students who do not read anything, and who fight you on reading in the classroom. Continue to provide book recommendations without forcing them to make a choice. Often they will make a decision on their own once they see that you want them to simply read, and are giving them the autonomy of choosing what they can read.
  3. Provide a visual of the students’ progress. We put a paper chain around each classroom, with one link in the chain being one book read. Students can then see the entire classes’ progress. We also created a friendly competition between the classes, where each month the class who read the most books keeps the reading trophy that a student made in woodshop in their classroom. It helps the students to own their reading success.
  4. Be a fangirl (or fanboy) about the books you are reading. Model reading in the classroom. Write the books that you are currently reading on the board. Get excited about the YA books that you enjoyed and share them to the class. Be honest and let the students know if you are struggling with getting through a book that doesn’t interest you. Treat your informal class book discussions as a book club discussion. Students will hopefully see reading as a hobby that deserves time outside of school if you treat it as an enjoyable pastime.

There are still some improvements that I need to work on for this project next year. For example, we have largely stopped writing in our reading notebooks because of time constraints, and are instead sharing our books verbally during the assigned reading block. Next year I would like to more closely link independent reading to my curriculum by creating time for reading workshops that match our Intended Learning Outcomes. I would also like to have time to place all of the student names into my classroom library organizer, and use an ipad to have students scan and check books out of our classroom library. Finally, as always, I need to keep reading more books to give more reading recommendations, so any suggestions are always helpful.

My Adventures in Book Whispering


When I first started teaching Language Arts I planned my units the way I saw other teachers do. I used the whole class novel sets, I planned my own assignments and activities around the novel we would read, and I set up all the criterion-referenced assessment and rubrics in advance so the students would know how they would be graded. Yet, as I taught these units, something usually didn’t feel quite right. I could never get the entire class to engage and participate in the novel. I never liked the fact that my two, sometimes three, middle school classes had to share a 30 novel set, meaning that the books had to be signed out by request if the students wanted to read at home. I struggled with not allowing the students to read ahead, because although I was told it would help to teach prediction strategies, I was never comfortable with asking the students to do something that annoyed me as a student.

Over the years, I kept trying to think of new ways, sometimes small ways, of getting the students to enjoy reading. I found that literature circles were better than whole class novels, but only if I provided a lot of background knowledge before we began, and even then I would have students who did not enjoy any of the novels that were available for me to use. With the help of some great teaching partners, we tried gender based novel studies, which were fun but also left me with students who did not like the books the teachers had chosen. I noticed that I would get some of the reading passion I wanted if I talked to students about the books they had chosen to read recently. I remember the first time I told a student that I had read a book that she had recommended. I had meant it as just a casual conversation, but the look in her eyes as her teacher told her she had listened to her recommendation told me that this is something I should do more often. I wanted to change something in how I structured reading time in the classroom, but I was not entirely sure where to start.

But then, over my Maternity Leave, I was able to read The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller. For me, this was the plan that I needed. Miller outlines how to reorganize your teaching and your classroom to meet the needs of readers. Her advice ranges from simple ways of encouraging independent reading in the classroom to a plan for a year-long reading workshop. She gave me concrete strategies that I could use to give my students reading choice while still adhering to the learning outcomes that have to be part of my Language Arts curriculum. It was one of those teaching resource books that had me continually thinking, “Yes, this is what my classroom needs to be like”.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t set everything up for September, so I’m not sure I can give Miller’s comprehensive reading workshop justice. Therefore, my New Year’s resolution is to test out many of her strategies in the classroom and make them happen. My classroom library is all pulled out and completely organized by genre. The reading notebooks are created and ready to be handed out. The students will be getting more independent reading time in the classroom, more conferences with me about the books they are reading, and more time in the library. They will be given reading goals, with our two classes having the goal of reading 200 books in January. I had already planned to teach a new literature genre each month, so students will be given more choice within that genre when it comes time to choose their reading. The staff will be warned that students will be encouraged to ask them about their favourite books, and I will encourage staff to stop by the class and talk about their reading. I am sure there will be “developing readers”, “dormant readers”, and struggles matching books to student interests. However, if I can be inspired by a book, perhaps I can help my students to uncover their own inspiration by finding a book that speaks to them.

CTV’s The Social Discusses YA Fiction, and I Respond


After catching a great interview last week with Young Adult writer Rainbow Rowell on the Canadian TV talk show The Social, I went to the show’s website to see if I could learn more. There I found an opinion editorial written by their digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, on why she is not a fan of YA novels. Of course she is entitled to her opinion, but as I read through and then thought about her reasons why, I feel that as a fan of Young Adult writing I need to comment on a few of her thoughts.

First, Allen is totally within her right to not read this particular genre. She is very lucky in that she has found her reading voice. She has experience reading, has explored different genres, and has discovered what she is looking for in her literature and what she does not appreciate. However, others are not so lucky. At least a third of adults today have not read a book since they left high school, and some hold it up as a badge of honour. These people have not yet found their reading voice, and the way to solve that is to expose them to a variety of different genres so they can develop discriminating tastes and learn what they appreciate and do not appreciate in a work of literature. If that means they enjoy reading Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, or Rumiko Takahashi’s graphic novel series Mermaid Saga, let them experience it to discover their reading voice.

Allen seems to divide her reasoning behind why she will not read Young Adult literature into two sections. The first is that she dislikes the vast merchandising and commercialism that these novels generate. I don’t think this is a very strong argument, as the evils of marketing seem to be a catch-all argument in our society for those who want more purity in their pop culture. Teenagers and young adults have lots of disposable income, and people try to market towards that. But this does not mean that the merchandising will be successful. The failure of Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments movies at the box office demonstrates that the books are loved on their own, and that flocks of young people won’t simply make a book a success because an ad tells them to. You cannot take Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as the “big three” of the young adult marketing scheme and think that it will apply to any YA book.

The second reason Allen gives is that she no longer feels the need to read novels where the adults are the problem, the kids are the heroes, and that life has the possibility of becoming better. She has many more adult novels that take priority on her to-read list before she would consider picking up a young adult work. That’s fine, but it seems to me that in this case she is criticizing the genre for being the genre. While it is true that young adult books often have the characteristic of young people saving the world or being the voice of reason, I find that having these main characters gives a sense of raw emotion that is just not present in much adult fiction. Too often in those books the theme or meaning is hidden behind complicated words, complex metaphors, or detailed illusions that show how “deep” the author is. But when I chuckle as I read about the surfer mumbling “bad ‘shrooms” as he paddles away from Percy Jackson emerging from the ocean in a translucent pearl, or cry out as I try to fathom infant euthanasia in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, I am experiencing uncomplicated, raw emotion. I would argue that this makes Young Adult books relatable to a wider audience, as we can have frank discussions about the obvious themes and conflicts in the books. As for Allen’s comment that Young Adult books usually have the theme of hope, and that life can get better, can someone please explain to me how one can outgrow a longing for that kind of warmth and security?

I am unique in that reading Young Adult fiction is part of my job. If I want to encourage reading, I have to read YA books so I can recommend them to students and help them find their reading voice. It can also get a little embarrassing in social situations where books are being discussed. One person has read Guns, Germs, and Steel, another has finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, and you have to confess that the best book you have read over the past couple of weeks has been Jennifer Holm’s Penny From Heaven. However, I like the YA genre. It gives me the opportunity to explore themes and emotions within a well-written setting and with likeable or interesting characters. And really, at their heart, I think that’s what most genuine readers are looking for.

Banned Books Week, September 22nd – 28th



This week was Banned Books week. This event was created in 1982 in response to an unusually high number of challenges to books in libraries, schools, and bookstores across the United States. Those supporting Banned Books week are encouraged to advocate for freedom of book choice for children, as well as speak out against censorship. The American Library Association records times when books were challenged (a request by an adult that the book be removed from the shelves) or outright banned (when a request was actually approved and the book was removed). Most of the requests seem to be regarding vulgar language, explicit content, a threat to family values, or that the content is simply unsuited for the age group that may want to read the offending book.

Lois Lowry’s book The Giver has regularly appeared on the American Library Association’s lists of challenged and banned books, and on her website Lowry has written a response to those who ask her what she thinks about people who try to ban her books:


“I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, “I don’t want my child to read this book.” But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”


The idea that strangers can have a say in what you can and cannot read is unsettling. While they feel they are trying to protect your sensibilities, they are really preventing you from using books to explore worlds that are beyond what your current reality might be. Eventually every reader must leave behind a sanitized and concrete perception of life, and explore new and abstract themes and ethical questions. It is really a part of growing up to take a new and unusual concept, practice critical thinking by forming an opinion about the idea, and be able to debate points with others while still granting them respect. If a few take the liberty of continually speaking for the majority, it feels like a slippery slope where children will have less practice independently deciding what is the best choice for themselves. It is therefore up to a child and his parents to decide if a book is worth reading. Parents have that essential connection with their child, and obviously have the knowledge of whether their child is developmentally or emotionally ready to tackle a book with controversial content. A teacher’s role is to be transparent about what books will be read in the classroom, offer alternatives if necessary, and make sure that a wide selection of books are available for students’ varied interests. Much has been made about teaching today’s children to be empathetic and responsible citizens. In order to do this, we must allow children to freely make their own literary choices, and to explore the world of books with the adults in their lives being guides rather than authoritarians.

International Dot Day


Today is International Dot Day. It is based on the story The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds. In this book, an art teacher inspires a reluctant art student by telling her to just place a dot on her blank piece of paper. The student then creates complex and wonderful dots on many different papers, and shares her confidence in “making her mark” with another reluctant artist. The theme running through the story is to allow people to express their creativity in order to gain assurance and confidence. Just as the student, Vashti, made her mark, so must we have the self-esteem and courage to make our mark on the world and express ourselves. In thinking about it, I am pretty lucky. Just by teaching, I am leaving my mark. Through creativity and collaboration with others I am attempting to help students become the best people they can be. If I was in the classroom this September, I would be trying to tie International Dot Day into a lesson on self-esteem and creative expression. However, I’m not back at school just yet, so I thought I would complete a little art project with my son. After all, I want him to have confidence in his abilities as he learns and grows.



The red dots are his fingerprints, and the green and blue dots are mine and my husband’s. It’s kind of my way of saying that we’re all in this together, and as a family we can all help each other gain what we need to “leave our mark” however we choose.

Old Challenge Complete, Newbery Challenge Beginning


This summer I tried the reading one book a day challenge, just to see if I could, and it turns out I can. Sixty-two books were read over July and August. The best part was that some of this number were children’s books that I read with my son. He’s obviously too young to understand what I was reading, but the cuddling as we flipped through the pages together provided some great memories. Here are a few of my summer favourites:


The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

Can Ivan, a gorilla who since childhood has been in a small zoo at an arcade, honour his friend’s last wish and help a baby elephant named Ruby to freedom? The 2013 Newbery Honor Award winning book is easy to read, poignant, and memorable.


Hold Fast, by Blue Balliett

Early’s father has disappeared, and now Early, her mother, and younger brother are forced to leave their home and live in a shelter. The problem of how to save Early’s father will keep you reading, but I particularly liked this book because of the honest and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of shelter families.

The Franny K. Stein series, by Jim Benton

The Stein family home is quite normal, except for a small room in the attic. It is here where Franny K. Stein, genius mad scientist, conducts her brilliant experiments. I have read five books in this series so far, and have been greatly amused by Franny’s thinking as she attempts to solve typical friend and school problems with her ingenious devices. This series would be great for Grades 2 – 4.


Tsunami!, by Kimiko Kajikawa

The story is simple enough, as an old, respected farmer living high on a hill attempts to warn his small village about an impending tsunami. But what really made this book for me are the illustrations. Ripped paper in a variety of textures creates gorgeous and dynamic pictures, plus a brainstorm for me about creating art for the classroom.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I had somehow missed reading this book during school, and I am so glad I gave myself a chance now. This novel is so brilliantly written that I went from thinking “Oh, maybe Jonas’ society isn’t so bad” to “OK, that doesn’t seem right” to “Oh no! Oh God, No! What are you doing?” in the time it takes to read approximately 150 pages. The only downside is I’ll now have to find time to read the rest of the books in the series.


Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz

If you teach the Middle Ages, just make this book part of your library. As a history major and a general history buff, I loved how Schlitz made the characters in her short plays relatable and endearing while still providing so much information about the time period.


I have now given myself a new reading goal, with no deadline. I am attempting to read all of the Newbery Award and Honor books. I have procured a list, and have scanned it to cross off any of the novels that I have already read. Some of the novels, like Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I think I will have to read again because I cannot remember the plot. Others, like A Wrinkle in Time, I may have to re-read to see if I like it any better the second time around. I’ll also have to overcome the challenge of finding all these books, in particular the novels from the 1920‘s. However, so far this challenge has been rather enlightening. By choosing to read books based on this one criteria, I have been exposed to a variety of plots, characters, and experiences. I have also noticed that many of the award winners are realistic fiction, which is a genre that I don’t naturally pick up, so I feel rewarded in that I have more books to recommend when asked what students should be reading. I am hoping to post updates about my progress, or, if you wish, simply go to my goodreads account to see my recent reading accomplishments. Also, if you like charts, learn more about the Newbery Award.

7 Great Reads for Canada Day


It’s Canada’s 146th birthday today, and in celebration, I thought I’d write a quick list of my favourite Canadian books. This list is in no way exhaustive and is in no particular order, but is more of a compilation of titles and authors that come to mind.

Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Of course this book must be included. The classic tale of orphaned Anne going through all the trials and tribulations of life in an idyllic Prince Edward Island setting. I remember liking how much Anne worked to make life as she wanted it to be, even with her many setbacks. It’s no wonder that this book has stood the test of time.


Shattered, by Eric Walters

This is such a powerful book about how those who have never been on the front lines can be affected by wartime atrocities and must ask what they can do to help. Walters has a frank writing style that makes you feel as if you are the main character, listening to Jacques describe his time as a member of the Armed Forces in Rwanda. This is a novel that would elicit meaningful and complex discussions in a middle or high school Social Studies.

Growing Pains: An Autobiography, by Emily Carr

Yes, I know she’s probably more famous as a painter, but when she could no longer trek out to the wilderness to paint her larger than life creations she wrote about her lifetime of experiences. Emily wrote several books, but her autobiography has always been my favourite. It’s a wonderful memoir of a woman who was so unsure about so many aspects in her life, and the one thing that kept her moving and forced her to make life decisions was that she wanted and needed to make art. It seems only fitting that the most written about Canadian artist should be able to have her own say.

Shhh! Canadian Scientists and Inventors Rule, by Diana Crutchley

From acetylene to zipper, learn all about uniquely Canadian inventions in this science ABC book. I have been to two of Diana Crutchley’s literacy workshops, and have come away from both with fun and informative ideas to try in the classroom. This book fits in with my impressions of the workshops. It’s a quick and enjoyable read, and is a worthwhile purchase for a middle school classroom.

Terry, by Douglas Coupland

I’ll admit it, throughout most of my childhood I knew Terry Fox was brave and determined, but I just didn’t get all the emotion that surrounded his run. Terry passed away when I was one month old, so I wasn’t one of the Canadians glued to the screen as he made his historic run, or donating money at the impromptu telethon once the run abruptly stopped. But this book by Coupland made me get it. The pictures interspersed throughout Terry’s story made me understand just how monumental Terry’s undertaking was, and how his efforts should not be forgotten. Now I use this book every year right before the Terry Fox Run, so my students will be able to get it too.

The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis

For me this book was always an introduction for students about how other children were forced into terrible situations that they must overcome. Every time I read this book I become struck at how Parvana wants her old life back, but is slowly coming to terms with how this is now the way life must be in Afghanistan. This is another book that would provoke complex and thoughtful discussion in class. Of course, after you read The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City must come next to you can complete the entire trilogy.

The Secret of Grim Hill, by Linda DeMeulemeester

When you have a class read-aloud that the students refuse to have you put down, you are going to appreciate the book. There is nothing more Cat wants to do than go to the Grimoire private school in her new town, and when she learns that the champions of a soccer match will be given the opportunity to enroll she just has to win the game. However, something supernatural is happening in Grim Hill, and Cat’s soccer victory could be her undoing. This is the first of five books, with a sixth promised soon, and my only complaint is that the sixth is taking so long to be published.

Happy reading, and happy Canada Day!

There, I Read All of Harry Potter



And … done. All seven Harry Potter books have been read. They were actually finished two months ago, and my response to them has been turning itself around in my mind for some time. However, I find that I have not been able to come up with any eloquent or profound observations, so here is my basic review:

I get it now. The books are good, and would sometimes even be considered great. J.K. Rowling was able to create an interesting and suspenseful plot, likeable characters, and intriguing meanings and symbolism. There were moments when I was deeply engrossed with the wizarding world, moments when I chuckled out loud, and moments where I actually felt a little frightened. (I would say reading the books late at night contributed to my being a little scared. Reading about Voldemort coming back while sitting in a dark nursery with my sleeping son at 1:00am and using a flashlight to help me read was not one of my smarter moments). I would think about the books when I wasn’t reading them, which to me is one of the criteria for a great series. I am pleased that I now get all of the Harry Potter jokes and memes that present themselves to me as I explore the Internet. I will say that there are probably other books out there that can rival the Harry Potter series in terms of plot, creativity, and adolescent interest. There were points where I was comparing Harry Potter to Percy Jackson, and then thinking that it was an unfair comparison because the Olympians books were published much later.

Overall, I can understand why people migrated towards these books and accepted them as their own, and why the series did such a great job at helping to re-establish the fantasy genre. My only word of caution is to not assume that the Harry Potter series is the epitome of young adult fiction, as some people seem to believe it is. Although it remains to be seen if any other series can reach the heights of Harry Potter, there are certainly going to be future books that will give it a try, and a few may succeed.

Harry Who?


“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”  -Robert Frost

Life changes, and so do my plans for this blog. If you would like to know about my new goals, check out the revamped About page.




I have a shameful confession to make. I, Sara, a 10 year teaching veteran of middle school, has never read Harry Potter.  I know, it’s shocking, but I do have my reasons.  The books became popular when I was still in university, and while I was interested in the mania at the time I was too busy critiquing The West Beyond the West for my History 105 class to read for pleasure.  Then, when I had the time to read young adult novels, I chose to pick up books that weren’t popular or well-known.  After all, Harry Potter seemed to be so loved by the masses that I wouldn’t have to encourage kids to read it, and I wanted some less popular books under my belt that I could recommend to kids. In a small way I also liked the shock on students’ faces when I admitted my dark secret.  They always proclaimed that I was missing out on something important, and several even volunteered to loan me their book sets so I could find out what I was missing.  However, with the little free time that I have while my son is napping, I have decided that the time has come to pick up the books and immerse myself in the world of Hogwarts.  Maybe now I can find out what made the books so appealing in the first place, as well as finally understand the Harry Potter memes that keep bouncing around Pinterest.  After the seven books are read, I will be sure to give you a review.