Margin Notes

TRY THIS TOMORROW: IT STARTS WITH A PICTURE

Dec
15

I spent the very last day of work in June reading The Confidence to Write by Liz Prather. Why did it take several more months before I found her blog? This resource offers so many ideas to try tomorrow but I am picking “It Starts With a Picture” to link you over to her page.

The only material you will need is dice, students with cellphones (if you have any students without cell phones, you can give them the heads up to add some photos to MS Teams from home or bring in some physical copies), writer’s notebooks and a pencil.

Here is her explanation:

Final exams looming, pop-up Christmas parties sugaring the halls, kids ready for a break, and I’m looking for something light and fun that also develops students’ writing skills of observation, analysis, language, and image.

This lesson also helps students develop those “dig deeper” skills, mining a universal theme, which is discovered in this single moment in time.  This lesson may also translate into something longer like a vignette or personal essay, but I encourage students to try to write in whatever short form of poetry they want for sharing.

She gives you the setup, the prompts and an extension idea so you are ready to try this tomorrow.

TRY THIS TOMORROW: MOODY MENTORS

Dec
01

I love it when my nightly scrolling is productive. Twitter can be a fantastic resource for inspiration and sharing ideas. Kate McCook (@KMcCookEnglish) so generously shared her idea of moody mentors. Here are the steps she outlines:

  1. I decided to focus on how to add mood to our pieces.
  2. I pulled out two favorite mentor texts, the openings to the memoirs The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls & Educated by Tara Westover, and called them “Moody Mentor Texts”
  3. I handed students a list of mood words & we defined new ones.
  4. We identified moods in each piece.
  5. We identified writing moves each author used to create the moods we noticed.
  6. We reassessed our drafts to see if we had established mood (and what mood)
  7. We chose two “Moody Mini Moves” to emulate in our own drafts.

I loved this idea so I tracked down the two mentors listed. Here are some excerpts:

Text #1

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Chapter 1: A Woman on the Street

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom’s gestures were all familiar — the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she’d hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City.

It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.

I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue.

The taxi pulled up in front of my building, the doorman held the door for me, and the elevator man took me up to my floor. My husband was working late, as he did most nights, and the apartment was silent except for the click of my heels on the polished wood floor. I was still rattled from seeing Mom, the unexpectedness of coming across her, the sight of her rooting happily through the Dumpster. I put some Vivaldi on, hoping the music would settle me down.

I looked around the room. There were the turn-of-the-century bronze-and-silver vases and the old books with worn leather spines that I’d collected at flea markets. There were the Georgian maps I’d had framed, the Persian rugs, and the overstuffed leather armchair I liked to sink into at the end of the day. I’d tried to make a home for myself here, tried to turn the apartment into the sort of place where the person I wanted to be would live. But I could never enjoy the room without worrying about Mom and Dad huddled on a sidewalk grate somewhere. I fretted about them, but I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.

What could I do? I’d tried to help them countless times, but Dad would insist they didn’t need anything, and Mom would ask for something silly, like a perfume atomizer or a membership in a health club. They said that they were living the way they wanted to.

After ducking down in the taxi so Mom wouldn’t see me, I hated myself — hated my antiques, my clothes, and my apartment. I had to do something, so I called a friend of Mom’s and left a message. It was our system of staying in touch. It always took Mom a few days to get back to me, but when I heard from her, she sounded, as always, cheerful and casual, as though we’d had lunch the day before. I told her I wanted to see her and suggested she drop by the apartment, but she wanted to go to a restaurant. She loved eating out, so we agreed to meet for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant.

 

 

Text #2

 

Educated by Tara Westover

After Dad took up preaching against milk, Grandma jammed her fridge full of it. She and Grandpa only drank skim but pretty soon it was all there – two percent, whole, even chocolate. She seemed to believe this was an important line to hold.

Breakfast became a test of loyalty. Every morning, my family sat around a large square table and ate either seven-¬grain cereal, with honey and molasses, or seven-grain pancakes, also with honey and molasses. Because there were nine of us, the pancakes were never cooked all the way through. I didn’t mind the cereal if I could soak it in milk, letting the cream gather up the grist and seep into the pellets, but since the revelation we’d been having it with water. It was like eating a bowl of mud.

It wasn’t long before I began to think of all that milk spoiling in Grandma’s fridge. Then I got into the habit of skipping breakfast each morning and going straight to the barn. I’d slop the pigs and fill the trough for the cows and horses, then I’d hop over the corral fence, loop around the barn and step through Grandma’s side door.

On one such morning, as I sat at the counter watching Grandma pour a bowl of cornflakes, she said, “How would you like to go to school?”

“I wouldn’t like it,” I said.

“How do you know,” she barked. “You ain’t never tried it.”

She poured the milk and handed me the bowl, then she perched at the bar, directly across from me, and watched as I shoveled spoonfuls into my mouth.

“We’re leaving tomorrow for Arizona,” she told me, but I already knew. She and Grandpa always went to Arizona when the weather began to turn. Grandpa said he was too old for Idaho winters; the cold put an ache in his bones. “Get yourself up real early,” Grandma said, “around five, and we’ll take you with us. Put you in school.”

I shifted on my stool. I tried to imagine school but couldn’t. Instead I pictured Sunday school, which I attended each week and which I hated. A boy named Aaron had told all the girls that I couldn’t read because I didn’t go to school, and now none of them would talk to me.

“Dad said I can go?” I said.

“No,” Grandma said. “But we’ll be long gone by the time he realizes you’re missing.” She sat my bowl in the sink and gazed out the window.

Grandma was a force of nature – impatient, aggressive, self-possessed. To look at her was to take a step back. She dyed her hair black and this intensified her already severe features, especially her eyebrows, which she smeared on each morning in thick, inky arches. She drew them too large and this made her face seem stretched. They were also drawn too high and draped the rest of her features into an expression of boredom, almost sarcasm.

“You should be in school,” she said.

“Won’t Dad just make you bring me back?” I said.

 

 

Text #3:

Here is a link to a blog post on mood with more moody mentor texts from poetry and pop cultures videos. The clip from One of Us is Lying could spark a book talk!

If you have another moody mentor, leave it in the comments!

TRY THIS TOMORROW: WHAT I’VE BEEN STREAMING

Oct
13

Scrolling Twitter one night, I saw a post shared from a bookstore titled “I want to get back into reading, I’ve been streaming”. The image, found here, matches readers with titles based on shows they have enjoyed. I often use conversation about television as a gateway to recommending books to students and this took it to a new level.  Other sources have similar lists to promote books based on TV entertainment.

 

Penguin has a list of “What to Read Next Based on Your Fav Netflix Shows”.

Epic Reads has a list of “36 Books to Read After Binge-Watching ‘Never Have I Ever’”.

Teaspoon of Adventure has a list of “Book to Read After Your Latest Netflix Binge”.

Try it:

  • Have students come up with a list of popular TV shows and research titles that are similar.
  • Have students pick one TV show and brainstorm similar titles they have read.
  • Have students look at your classroom library and pair titles with TV shows.
  • Have students match their current read with a TV show or movie.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: THE TRYOUT BY CHRISTINA SOONTORNVAT

Sep
20

“Stand tall. Be loud. If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything” 

This is a must-read middle-level graphic novel memoir hot off the press as it was released just this month. The Tryout follows the author’s story of growing up as an Asian American in a small Texas town. With essential themes of racism, failure and friendship, Christina retells the memories of navigating the social scene of middle school, the pressures put on a friendship and the relatable tale of trying to fit in.  

In her author’s note, Christina talks about the hesitation to include how it felt to deal with racism and her identity as an Asian American. She notes other discrimination that happened and how she had “accepted and internalized that that’s just the way things were.” With that reflection, she also acknowledges that sharing these stories is how we bring change. Readers see the racism disguised as jokes, mispronunciations, exclusion and obvious name-calling. 

The story centers around Christina and Megan’s friendship which was formed from shared experiences being minorities in a predominantly white town. They are both drawn into the social status of cheerleading and tryout for the squad together. The pressures of the upcoming cuts cause some conflict that is handled well and both girls experience growth and newfound confidence in the process.  

Readers are left with a description of growing up in Texas where Christina refers to the town as merely the setting and goes on to share the spotlight of her story – the characters.  Every middle schooler should read about her experience and see themselves in the characters, images and emotions.  

TRY THIS TOMORROW: THREE TOOLS FOR TALK 

Jun
23

In their resource, Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen guide educators on how to use book clubs to create a culture of reading.  

When students are placed together to carry conversation, the discussion might begin with the question “What do we talk about?” One response suggestion in this resource is to offer the three tools of talk. This strategy can help learners who struggle to find ideas worth sharing along with those who have ideas but need support to start a conversation. 

What’s on your mind? 

This question can start a conversation with any thought, sticky-note or quote to break the silence and teach learners that their ideas are valuable. It might be a thought about a character, an important event, an interesting detail etc.  

Audacious Questioning 

All group members can ask questions that may or may not have answers. The questions could be why something happened, what others predict will happen next, help to clear up confusion or ask about an event. Students can write sticky notes with questions as they arise in reading and bring them to the discussion or ask as the discussion progresses. 

Author’s Moves 

Once students learn to read like a writer, they know how to see the craft moves of an author. Students can discuss these moves together. They could talk about the structure, the language, the perspectives, the theme etc.  

Once you introduce, model and practice the three tools for talking, you can individualize feedback and support to groups when you notice which area they are leaving out of discussions or support them in including a variety of subtopics in each branch. 

If you are interested in learning more about starting, running and assessing book clubs, this title offers a practical guide to your teaching. The mini-lessons, tracking suggestions and immediately applicable advice is invaluable. 

Cherry-Paul, S., & Johansen, D. (2019). Breathing New Life into book clubs. Heinemann Educational Books. 

 

 

CRAFT STUDIO: FREAK THE GEEK BY JOHN GREEN 

Jun
02

What I’m Reading: 

John Green’s short story “Freak the Geek” is the story of two friends who have been named the targets in a school tradition to be pranked for a day. The pair run to escape and reflect on their friendship, school traditions and values. The author moves the story forward at a quick pace. He uses action mixed with short dialogue to demonstrate the quick movement that is happening during the conversation. 

Excerpt: 

“I never really thought about it before,” I tell Kayley as we simultaneously duck under a low-hanging oak branch, “but just the phrase ‘Freak the Geek’ is just hugely lame.” 

 “Yeah,” Kayley says. “True. It’s almost like the name was thought up by a bunch of mustachioed purple-hued maltworms.” Kayley likes using Shakespearean insults. I get down on one knee in a flash to pull up my sock — a girl has to protect herself from poison ivy. “Richard III?” I guess.  

“Henry IV,” she says. I nod. I can hardly hear the girls behind us anymore; I mostly just hear our breath coming fast and hard and the ground scrunching beneath us.  

“Like, admittedly I am not an expert in slang,” I say, “but isn’t freaking usually kind of sexual?” Kayley turns around to me and runs backward just long enough to say, “Example?” 

 “‘Madam, I wish to freak your body.’ Or, ‘My heart desires to become freaky with you.'” 

Moves I Notice the Author Making: 

  • The author uses quotation marks to show the words spoken. 
  • Sentence punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. 
  • Each time the speaker changes, the paragraph changes. 
  • The quotation marks close for the speaker tag (“Kayley says”) and re-open to finish the dialogue. 
  • The characters have internal thoughts while speaking out loud. 
  • The character actions are described between speech. 
  • When description sets up the dialogue, there is a comma before the quotation mark. 

Possibilities For Writers 

  • Write whatever comes to mind. 
  • Write about traditions that your school has and whether or not you think these are good traditions to have. 
  • Write a conversation trying some of the craft moves in this model. 
  • Write about slang words in you vocabulary, when to use them and how they might be misinterpreted by someone who is “not an expert in slang.” 

CARRY ON BY RAINBOW ROWELL

May
17

I’ve always been a fan of Rainbow Rowell. She’s recently been back on my radar for her compilation of short stories, Scattered Showers, due to be released in fall 2022. While her readers await the new release, it is a perfect time to recommend the Simon Snow series finishing last summer with the third book, Any Way the Wind Blows. This trilogy begins with Carry On which introduces readers to the world of Mages and Normals, magic and darkness, along with, in true Rowell fashion, a cast of characters that will keep the pages turning.

The exposition from several perspectives sets the stage to help the reader understand Simon, his best friend Penny and how they got to be at Watford School of Magicks. Simon’s nemesis, Baz, is mentioned often and missing in action. The pace of the story picks up when his absence is explained, and his voice is added to the narration. The three realize they have a common enemy and begin the challenge of working together instead of trying to kill each other. Woven into the plotline is a subtle political debate between the old vs new ways and parental influence in belief systems – bringing a contemporary twist causing reflection on who the “good” people are.

Sure, the book deals with magic, ghosts, vampires and monsters; but it also deals with human emotion. The reader sees characters battle their family history, their peer relationships, their sense of belonging and their sexual identity. The fantasy element will satisfy those looking to escape reality and the connections in the novel will appeal to those wanting to see themselves. This book has something for everyone; but don’t expect to leave completely satisfied because there are two more in the series to read after you finish Carry On!

TRY THIS TOMORROW: CONSIDERING DICTION IN POETRY USING CONCENTRIC CIRCLES

Apr
14

The resource Teaching Living Poets by Lindsay Illich and Melissa Alter Smith offers several engaging ideas and activities to incorporate poetry in your class. This activity is one used to introduce poetry and teach theme.

Materials:

Instructions:

  1. Place students in small groups with a poem and ask the simple question “What is the most significant word?” to represent this poem. Ask the groups to discuss their word choice and extend their discussion by explaining why they chose each word.
  2. Give each group a piece of chart paper with a marker. You will give a mini-lesson before they begin.
  3. Demonstrate how to use the concentric circles (found in the image below) to record your thinking on a poem. The focus is to defend the word choice as there are no right/wrong answers. The center circle is what the group has decided is the most important word. The next circle is for images and connections to that word. The third circle is theme. One way to consider theme is to ask, “What message is the author trying to deliver about the word written in the middle circle?”. Lastly, the outer area is for the text evidence that supports the word and theme.
  4. Students will copy the concentric circles on their own page.

For more ideas, follow the hashtag #teachlivingpoets on Twitter.

Illich, Lindsay, and Melissa Alter Smith. Teach Living Poets. National Council of Teachers of English, 2021.

YOU’LL BE THE DEATH OF ME BY KAREN MCMANUS 

Mar
15

“We all make mistakes, right? And almost never see the fallout coming.” 

If you enjoyed her books One of Us is Lying or The Cousins, you will be happy to pick up You’ll be the Death of Me. I enjoy a mystery and, even more than that, I appreciate how McManus captures the complexities of relationships in high school. Students gather together in one spot each day yet their experiences inside and outside that building are vastly different. This story centers around Ivy, a rich blonde who feels unseen under the comparison to her brother; Mateo, a mysterious student who is working multiple jobs to support his mother while also protecting his cousin; and Cal, an artist who romanticizes a middle school adventure as he experiences the life of an outcast in high school. 

The unlikely friendship that connects these three begins with the desperate need to escape their current situations. The trio once happened to experience “The Greatest Day Ever” in the 8th grade and circumstances have brought them together to try to recreate this before graduation. The fantasy of this adventurous escape, paired with the deep nostalgia of good times passed, is one with which teenagers can relate. Unfortunately for them, “The Greatest Day Ever” sequel starts with the discovery of a dead classmate and a witness describing one of them as the murderer.  

McManus’ writing is fast paced with vivid description casting a movie in your mind. Her depiction of the complicated nuances of relationships with friends, parents, siblings and partners creates a connection between the reader and characters. The book is another title to add to your mystery collection.  

 

THE PASSING PLAYBOOK BY ISAAC FITZSIMONS 

Jan
25

This book is everything. The cover quote from Kacen Callender calls the novel “a simultaneous warm hug and a lightning strike of courage” and I couldn’t agree more. I was so invested in the lives of the main characters, Spencer and Justice, that I read the entire book in one sitting. To be transparent, I love a good romance; whether the romance is the main plotline or a subtle background story, I am hooked. And there is so much love in this book. There is love between friends, parents, siblings, support systems, coaches and, of course, romantic love.  

The synopsis of the book highlights the conflict Spencer confronts playing as a transgender athlete on the boys’ team. For his own safety, Spencer transfers to a new school where he believes it is safe to be queer but is hesitant to be out as trans. This repeated message is an important reality that safety comes first, with no one pressuring Spencer to risk that by coming out as transgender. This emphasizes the fact that maintaining your own safety does not mean you are living a lie. 

Although these events do take place in the story, it is not what makes up the bulk of the narrative. 

The Passing Playbook takes the reader to a new school with Spencer where he experiences acceptance by his peers, teachers and coach; support in a GSA and success playing soccer. It also parallels this experience with that of Justice, Spencer’s crush and teammate, who has the same acceptance at school, but is not open at home. Their relationship is the sweet and romantic love that was a delight to read. 

Alongside the budding romance, this book deals with trans rights at school and in sports. It gives a positive example of what an accepting team can look like without a grand coming out, but also what the support of a team looks like when faced with adversity. Spencer fits in easily as a queer player and that comradery never waivers as the eventual conflict of playing as a trans athlete is realized.  

Another important storyline is the juxtaposition of parenting between the families of Spencer and Justice. On one side the reader sees parents who are desperate to do the right thing, attend support groups and bond with their child. On the other side are parents who are homophobic leaving a child who is scared. Spencer’s story has a happy ending. While the book ends with Justice being safe and loved, I can’t say his ending is a happy one. Fitzsimons does an excellent job highlighting the positives and showing strong Allyship without ignoring the hard realities being faced in the LBGTQ2AS+ community.  

Although left with a heart-warming feeling, this book does not shy away from hard topics. Readers will see characters faced with homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, misgendering and references to school violence. This is Isaac Fitzsimons’ first novel. He captures the characters so realistically with a pace that feels natural and I can’t wait to read more from this author. 

 

“I think that the more people who are out and visible, the safer it is for everyone. BUT, and this is a big but, you need to make sure that you’re safe first. Physically safe, yes but also emotionally and psychologically.” 

“Whether you come out tomorrow or in five years, or thirty years, I guarantee that the fight will still be going on in some form or another. And I promise that when you join us, we’ll welcome you with open arms.”