Margin Notes

Atomic (Reading) Habits Part 1


In Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear defines habits as “the compound interest of self-improvement. The same Atomic Habitsway money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

When thinking about habits, whether positive ones we’d like to start or negative ones we’d like to break, Clear encourages us to set ourselves up for success by focusing on the slight changes in daily habits that will help us progress, over time, to where we want to be. Each of these slight, gradual changes is an atomic habit: “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also a source of incredible power, a component of compound growth.”

We can break habits down into a cycle known as the Feedback Loop: “a cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes  associated with the cue. Thinking about habits as a cycle means that we can identify our cues and triggers and then intentionally plan the responses that will give us the reward we desire and motivate us to continue. We can leverage the Feedback Loop by following the 4 Laws of Behavior Change:

  1. Make it obvious.
  2. Make it attractive.
  3. Make it easy.
  4. Make it satisfying.

Atomic Habits gave me lots to think about in terms of my own habits and why it’s often hard to be consistent with the good habits we know and want to maintain. I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago! It also led me to do a lot of reflection on the reading habits we literacy educators aim to instill in our students. This book gave me many new insights into our quest to create environments where readers develop lifelong reading habits.


One of the most fundamental aspects of teaching reading is helping students develop an individual reading identity. Everything we do is in the service of our students seeing themselves as readers. Clear makes some interesting points about the connections between identity and habits:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m the type of person who wants this.’ It’s something very different to say, “I’m the type of person who is this.’”

“The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.”

“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.”

“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest belief about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.”

The question, then, becomes how we can use our knowledge of habits to develop students’ reading identities and vice versa. If habits compound over time and become who we are, it is critical that we set students up for success by providing lots of opportunities to practice. In “Raise Reading Volume Through Access, Choice, Discussion, and Book Talks” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey provide strong evidence of the correlation between independent reading and reading development. If we want students to view themselves as readers, they must spend long periods of time in books they can read and want to read.


According to Clear, our habits are dependent on context. He describes environment as “the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.” In many ways, our habits are directly influenced by our surroundings:

“Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviors tend to arise again and again under certain environmental conditions.”

“The cues that trigger a habit can start out very specific, but over time your habits become associated not with a single trigger, but with the entire context surrounding the behavior.”

“Our behavior is not defined by the objects in the environment, but by our relationships. Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you.”

“The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding better ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.”

“Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy.”

It is essential that we create an environment for reading that “makes the next action easy.” In “Reading and Talking About Books: A Critical Foundation for Intervention,” Cheryl L. Wozniak reminds us of the conditions that foster literacy success identified by Brian Cambourne (1988): immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, approximation, use, and response. Using these conditions as a guide, Wozniak designed a six-week reading intervention incorporated teacher book talks, interactive read-alouds, independent reading with unrestricted choice of texts, access to high-interest books, and partner talk. At the end of the intervention, students communicated “more positive attitudes toward reading, perceived themselves to have higher reading abilities, read more and for longer, and were more engaged during language arts time.”

In other words, an environment that supports a positive relationship with books and reading helped these students see themselves as readers and motivated them to develop the habits of readers. It isn’t enough to put books in the classroom, we need to celebrate them and give students time to experience them.




Sunny Rolls the DiceSunny Rolls the Dice is the third book of the bestselling Sunny Series written by the award-winning siblings, Jennifer and Matthew Holm.

This funny middle-grade graphic novel addresses, with a light touch, some of the difficulties students have transitioning into middle school.

For tweenagers, the transition to middle school usually holds a combination of nervousness, fear and doubt, but Sunny Rolls the Dice approaches the challenge in a really amusing way through its main character’s humorous stories. For Sunny, the main character, middle school becomes a complicated transition, especially in terms of her appearance and relationships. In fact, while she tries to imitate whatever her best friend, Deb, does (only to keep her friendship with Deb), she still wants to maintain her own sense of identity and independence by making new friends and playing cool games with her male classmates, even if those games are not so “girly”!

Sunny Rolls the Dice is set in the late 1970s, when Sunny, who is in the seventh grade, takes the “Are You a Groovy Teen?” quiz in Teen magazine and obtains the lowest score possible. Unlike her friends, Sunny still wears galoshes on rainy days, which is scored as an absolute zero based on the Groovy Meter. She also plays Dungeons & Dragons with a group of boys, which is not something that “cool” girls at her age do. So many times she gets confused by the variety of messages she receives from her friends and also teen magazines about how girls should look and act to be groovy. These messages lead her to avoiding playing the game she loves.

Initially, Sunny struggles to change her self-image based on her friends’ comments, but eventually she stops trying so hard to be measure up to her friends’ standards and chooses to be cool in her own way: by being her true self! What I adore about this story is that Sunny, in the end, chooses to do what she really enjoys and sticks to it regardless of whatever her friends’ negative feedback might be.

This book will be most popular with middle school students who are facing the dilemma of remaining true to themselves or acting and looking groovy enough to be accepted by their peers.

The main reason I highly recommend Sunny Rolls the Dice is because of Sunny’s decision to go her own way and not really care about what her friends’ reactions might be. The story also offers parents and teachers the opportunity to discuss the significant issue of popularity with middle school kids. The following questions have been suggested by some of the readers of this amazing graphic novel:

  • Do you find it tough to make new friends while sticking to your own self-image
  • What does it mean to be popular in middle school?
  • What products do tween kids buy in order to seem more popular?
  • Can middle school girls play “boyish” games like D&D and still be cool? And is being cool really that important?

Rezvan Dehghani, originally from Iran, is an EAL/ ESL instructor at Devon Middle School in Fredericton, NB.



What I Was Reading:

apolloNow more than ever there are a plethora of great YA novels to get our students reading. One such series that also has the benefit of enjoying a movie adaptation is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. His spin off series The Trials of Apollo centers around the god Apollo losing his memories and becoming human. A strong recommendation for any students who like fantasy.

One of the things I really enjoyed was how every chapter begins with a haiku. These haikus, often humorously, foreshadow what is going to happen in the coming chapter. Not only is this a great writing move but it also pays homage to the source material. Many of the Greek myths and tales are either told through or prominently feature poetry in a number of ways: look back to Homer, Aeneid, and many of the Greek philosophers. So, given this is a story centered around gods and demi gods from the Greek pantheon, this is very fitting.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  • The haiku always foreshadows something that will happen in the chapter.
  • The haikus vary in tone and subject matter for every chapter.
  • They operate as an epiphany, a comment or a thought on the story.
  • They often use metatextual references or break the fourth wall.
  • They always follow the 5-7-5 convention.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Provide students with a chapter of a book, short story, or video clip and have them write a haiku summarizing the content.
  • Provide the opposite: Provide them a haiku and have them write a narrative inspired by the content.
  • Have students provide haikus and/or writing to each other and for each others’ work.
  • Experiment with other poem structures to summarize a piece of writing or to function as an aside to what is happening (rhyming couplet, limerick, etc).
  • Encourage students to look into the genres they enjoy and employ something relevant to that genre, culture or tone. For example, introducing a science formula or a captain’s log entry at the beginning of a chapter of science fiction, a historical quote for a historical piece, or a text message exchange for a YA drama.

Guest writer Mitch Caissie is a nerd with a heart of gold and a head of hair, currently working through his Bachelor of Education and eagerly waiting to finish and begin his journey into teaching. He enjoys his wife, his pup, his video games, and his ability to speak in the third person.



ComicsOur world is inundated with nerd-culture. We pay the expensive prices for movie tickets and wait in line to get the best seats on opening night. We travel far-and-wide to ride the superhero rides, for a chance to get our picture taken with leotard and cape-sporting characters. Many of us go as far as permanently inking our bodies with our ride-or-die favourite characters or our favourite alliances. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find a young person who hasn’t at least passively watched a superhero movie or television show. Superheroes are just that – heroes. Extraordinary people who go to extraordinary lengths to do things for others.

Comics Will Break Your Heart shows its audience a side of comics that many people haven’t thought about before – the origin stories. Not of the characters within the books, but of those who create them. Who are the writers? The artists? Who chooses the colour of the capes and the distribution of the work itself? Faith Erin Hicks reminds us of something that we so often forget – we are all creators of our own worlds. We imagine scenarios in our heads – what could happen vs. what we want to happen in our real lives.

Mirroring a Romeo and Juliet type love affair, Hicks writes a coming-of-age story for wannabe-nerds and hardcore-nerds alike. Mir, a devotee of nerd culture, is conflicted about leaving her small-town life behind after high school. Weldon, a rich kid exiled to small-town Nova Scotia for a summer, is trying to get his act together. The unlikely pair try to overcome their family’s intertwined histories to make new lives for themselves, but their last names seemingly leave them suffocated. Their families battled against each other in an ugly, long-winded court case for the rights to the comic series, The TomorrowMen.

This YA novel will surely appeal to those who are familiar with the history of comic books and their worth on our current superhero culture, but also to an audience who loves coming-of-age stories. A simple love story about friends, family, and their interconnectedness, Comics Will Break Your Heart gives students a new romance novel for daydreamers, artists, and nerds alike.

Laura Noble is an English teacher at Leo Hayes High School and is currently finishing her Masters in Education. She is an avid reader of true crime, feminist literature, and realistic fiction.



What I Was Reading:

SissyI used to have a rainbow flag accessory on my phone, but it broke. My quick fix for making sure my students continue to be sure that I’m an ally of the LGBTQ++ community is to openly read very obviously queer novels. One of my favourites so far has been Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobias. It’s a hilarious and hard-hitting autobiography that discusses gender, sexuality, sex education, religion and all kinds of social issues that come along with growing up as a non-binary person within a society that upholds a restrictive gender binary.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

Jacob Tobias’ voice comes through so clearly in their writing. One of the moves I see Jacob making to emphasize their voice in the book are the little faux-footnotes they sprinkle in. Instead of elaborating within the text, Jacob sometimes just inserts an asterix and explains or elaborates points in a little footnote at the bottom of the page. These footnotes range from explanations of words that the reader may not be familiar with to little additions to stories they tell in the text. These little additions are usually more informally written than the core text, which makes it feel like the author is adding in these details just for you, and makes the text feel even more authentic and personal than it already is.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • I mostly see this craft move as a way to insert additional ideas into a text without interrupting the flow of the main piece of writing.
  • When writers are writing about something they are an expert in, a faux-footnote would be a great way to throw in “fun facts” that might otherwise throw off the flow of a piece.
  • When writers are writing a more serious piece and are struggling to have their voice come through, this craft move could allow them to add in some humour/personality without interrupting the decorum of their writing.
  • When writers want to make sure readers understand the point they are making, a reiteration as a faux-footnote is a creative way to ensure readers understand the idea they’re trying to convey.
  • As Jacob uses them, faux-footnotes are also a great way to define a word that is necessary to use but may not be known to the piece’s audience.

My name is Caroline Wilson and I’m a student in the UNB faculty of Education. I love to be able to recommend all sorts of books to my students so I have been trying to fill my Non-Fiction book gap with memoirs like this one. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more about first-hand experiences in the queer community or about the gender binary.