Margin Notes



Kat Fields and Marisol “Mari” Castillo are headed to Estrella Roja, a tiny town in rural Texas, but for different reasons. After receiving an anonymous tip about the strange things that happen there, Kat loads up her car for a solo trip to the town to investigate it for her podcast, “Paranormal Texas.” Upon arrival, she finds the people of Estrella Roja distant and cold, except for a girl she runs into at the local diner. Mari is on her way to Estrella Roja, a place she hasn’t been since her mother packed up and left with Mari and her sister nine years ago, for her abuela’s funeral. Plagued by nightmares and bored out of her mind, Mari seeks a distraction through Kat, a girl determined to discover whatever secrets Estrella Roja holds. The two girls team up, and as the town’s mysterious past comes to light, it’s not just feelings swarming up around them.

The Hills of Estrella Roja is a story about self-discovery and learning to love yourself, even when you think you’re a monster. With its beautiful illustrations, heartfelt moments and the highs and lows of teenage love, this graphic novel is an excellent choice for anyone looking for a visual experience while reading. It’s also a wonderful choice for students looking for books that contain LGBTQIA2S+ representation. Before recommending this book, it’s good to mention that there are spooky elements that may frighten students.



What I was reading:

“Good Different” by Meg Eden Kuyatt is a captivating and heartwarming novel that delves into the lives of middle school students navigating the challenges of identity, acceptance, and friendship. To read more about this novel in verse, check out the book recommendation here.



For Mrs. V’s Homework Assignment On Why I Like Pebblecreek Academy

By Selah Godfrey

Why do I like Pebblecreek?
It’s a silly question. Of course
I like Pebblecreek. I just do.

I like the sound of the whole class reciting
the same jingle, or singing the same song, together.

I like the way my best friend Noelle wiggles her eyebrows
in the goofy Noelle way and makes me laugh
when we’re in class or on cleanup duty.

I like that the stairwells always smell like Pebblecreek stairwells
and the classrooms always smell like Pebblecreek classrooms.

I like that I’ve been in the same school building
every year of school and know where all the rooms are.

At Pebblecreek, there’s a way for doing everything:
raise your hand to speak in class
electronics off and put away
no makeup
lunches and jackets on the shelf
in your assigned spot
just outside the classroom.

Even though lots of kids complain
about all our rules, I like
that I don’t have to think about
what to wear
and know what I’m
supposed to do.

Everyone at Pebblecreek is part of the Pebblecreek family,
and it really feels like that,
like all the teachers are my aunts and uncles who always tell us at the end of each day,
“You are loved and worthy
and can do great things.”

At Pebblecreek, all the kids invite each other
to each other’s parties.
Even if we aren’t all close
They’re always there,
Because we’re stuck with each other
In the same classes each grade,
so we kind of have to get along.

I like that everyone knows me
As the Girl Who’s Good at Drawing
and people always say nice things about my drawings
and ask me to draw them.

I like that there’s a place for me at Pebblecreek.
Pebblecreek might not be perfect
but it’s familiar
and I never want to change it,
like a pair of favorite shoes
that even if they’re falling apart
you tape up and try to fix
because they’re special and important
and yours.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  1. Descriptive Language: The author uses sensory details to describe the environment and atmosphere of Pebblecreek Academy. Descriptions like “the stairwells always smell like Pebblecreek stairwells” and “classrooms always smell like Pebblecreek classrooms” evoke a vivid sense of familiarity and routine. She capitalizes what she is known for as if it is an official title.
  2. Character Development: Selah introduces and describes her best friend, Noelle, showcasing a personal connection and adding depth to the narrative. This helps create a more relatable and engaging story.
  3. Voice and Tone: The tone of the piece is personal and reflective, conveying the author’s feelings and experiences. The voice feels authentic, which allows readers to connect with the narrator’s emotions and perspective.
  4. Repetition and Rhythm: The repetition of phrases like “I like” and the consistent structure throughout the piece create a rhythmic flow, emphasizing the author’s sentiments and reinforcing the central theme of fondness for Pebblecreek Academy.
  5. Symbolism and Metaphor: The analogy of Pebblecreek being compared to a pair of favorite shoes that one wants to keep despite their imperfections is a metaphor that adds depth and emotional resonance to the author’s feelings towards the school.
  6. Themes of Belonging and Community: The text explores themes of belonging and community within the school, emphasizing the sense of belonging and acceptance the narrator feels among her peers and teachers.


Possibilities for Writers:

Writer’s can:

  • Reflect on their own communities and buildings where they feel they belong.
  • Practice crafting vivid and sensory descriptions of places, whether it’s a school, a neighborhood, or any familiar environment. Detailing the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with a place can create a strong sense of atmosphere and nostalgia.
  • Experiment with using metaphors and analogies to describe feelings, experiences, or places. Similar to Selah’s comparison of Pebblecreek to a pair of favorite shoes, writers can use metaphors to evoke emotions and connections.
  • Experiment with the style of narrative. Try using repetition, varied sentence structures, or different points of view to convey emotions and experiences effectively.
  • Write about that they are known for like how Saleh is known as “the Girl Who’s Good at Drawing”.






“Good Different” by Meg Eden Kuyatt is a captivating and heartwarming novel-in-verse that delves into the lives of middle school students navigating the challenges of identity, acceptance, and friendship. The story unfolds through the eyes of Selah, a middle school student who has survived on the rules she has made for being normal. She has spent her life studying the world around her and changing her behaviors to fit into the mold.  Challenges arise and she starts to learn and explore the idea that she could be autistic. Armed with the power of knowledge and the support of some mentors, she sets out to make her own rules and accommodations so the world can adapt for her. As she forms unexpected connections with her classmates as the narrative weaves a poignant tale of self-discovery, empathy, and the power of embracing diversity.

One of the central themes of “Good Different” is the celebration of diversity. Meg Eden Kuyatt skillfully explores the complexities of identity, emphasizing the importance of accepting oneself and others for who they truly are. The novel provides valuable insights into the challenges faced by individuals who may be perceived as “different” and encourages readers to cultivate empathy and understanding. Themes of friendship, resilience, and the strength that comes from embracing one’s unique qualities are interwoven throughout the narrative. Truly, the biggest takeaway was the unwavering idea that different should be celebrated.

Kuyatt’s writing style is both accessible and engaging, making “Good Different” an ideal choice for middle school classrooms. The author seamlessly blends humor and sensitivity, creating a narrative that resonates with young readers. The characters are well-developed and relatable, allowing students to connect with the story on a personal level. The inclusion of diverse perspectives enriches the reading experience, fostering a sense of inclusivity within the classroom.

Don’t forget to read the author’s note for context and personal insights that enhance the overall reading.




When all 2 hours and 2 minutes of The Tortured Poets Department dropped, the reactions of swifties and non-swifties alike dominated online spaces. Since students (and their teachers) are reading and debating the merits of these digital texts, it seems like an excellent opportunity to leverage this current engagement and create a mini craft study.

After I pulled together a small collection of reviews that range from glowing to mixed to negative, I identified a learning target from our ELA curriculum: evaluate an author’s effectiveness using textual support. Then, I selected a paragraph from each of the reviews that demonstrates the use of textual support:

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department / The Anthology Album Review  (Pitchfork)

It’s not Swift’s fault that we’re so obsessed with her, but this album gives the impression that she can’t quite hear herself over the roar of the crowd. Tearjerkers like “So Long, London” and “loml” fall short when every lyric carries equal weight. There’s no hierarchy of tragic detail; these songs fail to distill an overarching emotional truth, tending to smother rather than sting. It would help if Swift were exploring new musical ideas, but she is largely retreading old territory—unsurprising, perhaps, given that the last three years of her life have been consumed by re-recording her old albums and touring her past selves. The new music is colored in familiar shades of Antonoff (sparse drum programming, twinkly synths) and Dessner (suppler, more strings). Songs sound like other songs—“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart” like Midnights’ “Mastermind”; the intro of “So Long, London” like that of Folklore’s “My Tears Ricochet.” Her melodies feel staid, like they are made to fit the music, rather than the other way around.

Taylor Swift’s ‘Tortured Poets Department’ Is More Puzzling Than Poetic  (Huffington Post)

When it comes to Swift’s music, I often think of a concept introduced by Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers on their podcast Las Culturistas: Taylor Swift vs. Tayla Swiff. In their analysis of “folklore” and “evermore,” they posit that at her best, Swift portrays her genuine self in her music, exuding raw emotion and vulnerability. At other times, she leans too far into Tayla Swiff (the name they have given her public persona), and tries to wink at her listeners that she’s in on the joke of her celebrity, or worse, garner pity for her struggles as one of the most powerful women in the world. Tayla is alive and well on “The Anthology”: She writes of the hyper-attention on her breakups, saying, “Come one, come all / It’s happenin’ again / The empathetic hunger descends” in “How Did It End?” and in “The Prophecy,” she claims, “Don’t want money / Just someone who wants my company”…

Taylor Swift: The Tortured Poets Department review  (AV Club)

Swift is hardly the only artist whose work is in conversation with itself, nor is she the first to return to ideas on multiple albums. But The Tortured Poets Department exists in the inescapable shadow of the incredible volume of music immediately preceding it. It’s easy, on many tracks, to point to an analog, musically or lyrically, from a previous album. “Who’s Afraid Of Little Old Me?” is this album’s “mad woman”; the reference to CPR on “So Long, London” inevitably recalls “You’re Losing Me.” Perhaps this wouldn’t be a detriment if we had time away from these repetitive themes. But Swift has released eight albums in the last four years, and the influence of that hyperproductivity is evident in Tortured Poets. Production-wise, many of Swift’s collaborations with Jack Antonoff sound like Midnights B-sides, or worse, like 1989 Vault Tracks (essentially, C-sides). Songs that are brand new feel done before within this Taylor Swift Experience context.

Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ Review  (Billboard)

Furious rhetorical questions and errors in judgment dot the Tortured Poets Department lyrics, as Swift aims at a target beyond vulnerability, that allows her wide listenership to understand her heart and mind. In a career defined by her songwriting, Swift has never placed so much emphasis on her words — the production, courtesy of Swift and close collaborators Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, seems to evaporate at points, the music almost incidental compared to the lyrics. The warm synth-pop of Midnights serves as the closest reference point, but that album was cleanly orchestrated, while The Tortured Poets Department wants to get in the mud with soft-loud dissonance and tracklist sprawl. Really, the album is in conversation with her entire catalog — a country-pop chorus here, a Folklore folk tale there — while still making time to explore the unknown.

Album Review: Taylor Swift’s ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ is written in blood (NPR)

Swift’s musical approach has always been enthusiastic and absorbent. She’s created her own sounds by blending country’s sturdy song structures with R&B’s vibes, rap’s cadences and pop’s glitz; as a personality and a performer, she’s all arms, hugging the world. The sound of Tortured Poets offers that familiar embrace, with pop tracks that sparkle with intelligence, and meditative ones that wrap tons of comforting aura around Swift’s ruminations. Beyond a virtually undetectable Post Malone appearance and a Florence Welch duet that also serves as an homage to Swift’s current exemplar/best friendly rival, Lana Del Rey, the album alternates between co-writes with Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, the producers who have helped Swift find her mature sound, which blends all of her previous approaches without favoring any prevailing trend. There are the rap-like, conversational verses, the reaching choruses, the delicate piano meditations, the swooning synth beats. Antonoff’s songs come closest to her post-1989 chart toppers; Dessner’s fulfill her plans to remain an album artist. Swift has also written two songs on her own, a rarity for her; both come as close to ferocity as she gets. As a sustained listen, Tortured Poets harkens back to high points throughout Swift’s career, creating a comforting environment that both supports and balances the intensity of her storytelling.

Taylor Swift’s New Album, ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ Could Use an Editor: Review  (NY Times)

Plenty of great artists are driven by feelings of being underestimated, and have had to find new targets for their ire once they become too successful to convincingly claim underdog status. Beyoncé, who has reached a similar moment in her career, has opted to look outward. On her recently released “Cowboy Carter,” she takes aim at the racist traditionalists lingering in the music industry and the idea of genre as a means of confinement or limitation.

Swift’s new project remains fixed on her internal world. The villains of “The Tortured Poets Department” are a few less famous exes and, on the unexpectedly venomous “But Daddy I Love Him,” the “wine moms” and “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best” who cluck their tongues at our narrator’s dating decisions. (Some might speculate that these are actually shots at her own fans.) “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived” is probably the most satisfyingly vicious breakup song Swift has written since “All Too Well,” but it is predicated on a power imbalance that goes unquestioned. Is a clash between the smallest man and the biggest woman in the world a fair fight?

Invite students individually or in small groups to notice and name the various types of textual evidence as well as the range of techniques for incorporating it they find in each of the excerpts. Then ask them to rank each of the reviewer’s use of textual evidence from most to least effective and explain their decision. In other words, they’ll be evaluating the reviewers’ effectiveness using textual support.

You could use these reviews for a number of different mini craft studies, including:

  • Select paragraphs that focus on the same element of TTPD and compare points of view or perspectives.
  • Give students different highlighters to identify analysis, summary, and examples and compare the ratio across excerpts.
  • Compare sections of each text where the writer is persuading the audience. List the techniques and evaluate their effectiveness.

This framework for organizing mini craft studies (curate a collection of texts, identify a learning target or focus, select a paragraph or excerpt from each text, and inviting students to notice, name, and evaluate the effectiveness of the techniques) can be adapted for any collection of responses, reactions, reviews, and hot takes on something your students are reading and talking about (a new product/movie/series/game, the outcome of a sporting event, a current event, etc).

No matter what your mini craft study focuses on, you can extend students’ learning by asking them to find examples of similar craft moves in their reading and by incorporating them into their writing.




“It looked like a doll house. Or, it would have, if anyone ever bothered to clean it up. What was supposed to be bright yellow was closer to grayish cream. The front porch was missing boards, and the roof sagged. Even the grass, when it wasn’t covered in snow, was brown and overgrown with weeds year-round.

Micah loved it. It was beautiful and creepy and looked like it had a story to tell.”

Finch House by Ciera Burch offers a unique take on the customary haunted house tale. Eleven-year-old Michaela (Micah) is fascinated by the old Victorian home known as Finch House. Her curiosity only increases when her Poppop makes her promise that she will never step foot in that house, or even on the street where Finch House is located. No more will he reveal.

Despite her promise and best intentions, Micah finds herself befriending Theo whose family purchased and fixed up Finch house. When invited inside, Micah gives into curiosity and accepts. What she doesn’t realize is that she may never be able to leave.

This book provided the intrigue and mystery that students love in a YA novel while seamlessly folding in a deeper story about family and forgiveness. I pitched it to my class when we returned from break and have several waiting to claim it.

It is appropriate for grades 5-8 and contains enough action to keep students turning the pages. I would recommend this book as a good transition for students who enjoy Goosebumps or Haunted Canada books.

Megan Young Jones is a middle level teacher at Hanwell Park Academy. Finding and recommending books to her students is the best part of her job!



What I was reading:

Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz is a novel told in the perspectives of two middle school students about friendship, trauma, and the lengths at which we will go to fit in. Read more about this book and why it is great for middle school classrooms here.

The text:

Hidden Truths opened with a hook that had me considering the power that the first few words can carry for the experience of the reader. It read:

“I didn’t know today would matter.

I didn’t know it would change everything.

I thought what mattered had already happened.

I was wrong.”

Moves I noticed the author making:

  1. Short fragmented sentences. Similar to poetry, or a novel in verse, these fragmented sentences are done with purpose to pack a punch after each thought.
  2. The repetition of “I didn’t know” at the start of the lines creates a sort of flow and reinforces the inner struggle of the main character.
  3. The structure. Having the “I didn’t know… I didn’t know… I thought… I was…” structure at the start of each of these sentences gives us a sense of conflict right from the start. It gives us the sense that the character is dealing with something that has deeply impacted them and hooks the reader to want to know more.

Possibilities for writers:

  • Try writing their own hooks using the “I didn’t know… I didn’t know… I thought… I was…” structure.
  • Try using fragmented sentences to create a sense of inner conflict.
  • Write about a situation that they were wrong, trying to use repetition to reinforce struggle.
  • Look through their own independent reading to try to identify and recreate craft moves in hooks.



Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz asks a big question, how far would you go to keep a promise? It tells the story of Dani and Eric who are best friends who go through something traumatic together. As Dani tries to heal, Eric is trying to come to terms with the fact that he may have been the one to cause the accident that hurt Dani. Neither of them knows how to handle their feelings, so they keep everything bottled up and focus more on who they think they should appear to be to everyone else. This drives the friends apart and sets into motion a series of events that will have you hoping these two can forgive one another and find their way back to their friendship and themselves.

Hidden Truths was such a heart wrenching middle grade novel and really had me considering the lengths we go to at all ages to be accepted and to fit in. The author does a really great job of appealing to a younger audience with pressures they would face in trying to fit in with a group of people, and leaves readers with a glaring message of hope that our differences shouldn’t separate us, instead they should bring us together.

The whole time I was reading, all I could think of was how great of a class read aloud this would be in a middle grade classroom. It was fast paced and had some dramatic moments that would engage readers. It also had a lot of points where you could stop and consider the motivations of the characters, the connections to we could make to ourselves and the choices we have made, and how the alternating perspectives of Dani & Eric really impact our understanding of the story and these young characters. There is something about a middle grade novel that can not only help us grow and reflect on our own choices, but also create empathy for the characters and their experiences and this one definitely delivers. It felt like it was appealing to every part of me that had ever struggled and gone to any certain length to try and fit in and is perfect for adults and children alike. Hidden Truths should have a place on all middle school classroom library shelves!



What is a reading word sort?

This “Think From the Middle” reading activity is used for making predictions, setting reading intention and checking for understanding. It involves tactile learning and can be done individually or in groups. Here is the description from their website:


Word sorts for narrative text is a before-, during-, and after-reading strategy in which the teacher creates a collection of important words and phrases from a story on index cards.  This collection is prepared in advance of the lesson.  Working individually or in pairs before reading the text, students arrange the cards in an order that supports the telling of a story and then use the cards to tell the story to the class.  During the reading the teacher stops occasionally, allowing the students to rearrange their cards, as needed. Upon the conclusion of the reading, the students rearrange for the last time in order to give a proper retelling.

How would I use it?

Before asking students to complete this sorting, the teacher would model the steps in a mini-lesson while sharing aloud their thinking. The work of readers happens inside the mind and the think-aloud will allow that process to be visible for students.

This idea can be expanded to have students continue to re-arrange the cards to discuss theme, characters, conflict, text structure etc. The teacher guides the lesson with the words/phrases selected for the cards.

Where can I find a step-by-step guide?

This reading activity comes from the website Think From the Middle and all the directions are written out step-by-step here.

If you love this activity and want to stretch this thinking, check out our post on hexagonal thinking.



What do you think of when you hear the word “warm”? What images or feelings might that conjure up for you?

For  Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency Neil Gaiman, the idea of “warmth” was top of mind when winter was settling in and he knew there would be many refugees living rough…without the comfort that warmth brings. He went to Twitter to ask a simple question: What are your memories of being warm?

Well, Twitter did not disappoint.

Gaiman received thousands of replies, compiled all the responses and, with the help of 12 talented illustrators, created this unique book: What You Need to be Warm: A Poem of Welcome.

Every page is full of “warmth” both in the words and the illustrations.

This would be a beautiful mentor text to use during poetry month. You could examine the way that Gaiman uses language to evoke feelings and look at how the illustrations help to bring the text to life. You could also discuss how Gaiman took all the memories and wove them into a poem.

A great way to do low stakes poetry writing is to a collaborative poem. Students could each create a poem (based on a question or prompt) and then could put them together into one longer text. Then, students could be encouraged to illustrate different parts. This could be done with paper/pencil or with technology.

Here are some ideas for prompts:

  • Home is…
  • Blue is… (Sample lesson plan here)
  • Choose a character from a class read aloud and write a poem describing them

This book reminded me a bit of Ain’t Burned All The Bright, a collaboration between Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin, because of the collaborative nature of the work. Here are two blog posts about that book.

What You Need to be Warm: A Poem of Welcome would make a great addition to a read aloud stack for Poetry Month, or any time of year!







What I Was Reading: 

Clint Smith’s latest collection, Above Ground, examines the emotional landscape of fatherhood, particularly how parenthood has reshaped his perspective on the world. Through poems that explore personal and historical legacies, Smith reflects on the complexities of raising a family amidst societal upheaval. He captures both the joy of seeing the world anew through the eyes of a child and the weight of navigating a turbulent political and social climate.

In “This Is an Incomprehensive List of All the Reasons I Know I Married the Right Person,” the poet employs several craft moves to convey the depth of their love and appreciation for their partner:

This Is an Incomprehensive List of All the Reasons

I Know I Married the Right Person

Because on weekends you wrap your hair with a scarf

and you have so many different scarves that come in

so many different colors and now when I’m out in the world

every time I see a colorful scarf I think of you and I think

of the weekends which are the best days because they are

the days that you and I don’t have to worry about work

or deadlines just bagels and bacon and watching this small

human we’ve created discover the world for the first time.

Because when you laugh you kind of cackle, no I mean you

really cackle like you take a deep breath in and out comes

something unfiltered and unrehearsed and it’s cute

but also scary and isn’t that the perfect description of love?

Because when you watch The Voice you talk to the judges

as if they are waiting for your consultation. Because you

always ask the restaurant to make your pizza extra crispy

and then you put it in the oven for another thirty minutes

anyway after they deliver it. Because when you wake our son

up in the morning you are always singing. Because when

I read you poems I love you always close your eyes

and tell me your favorite line. Because on my birthday

you had my friends make barbecue

and we had leftovers for weeks. Because I like my cinnamon rolls

with maple syrup and honey mustard and you still kiss me

in the morning. Because you hold my hand

when I’m scared and don’t know how to say it.

What Moves I Notice the Author Making: 

  • Using vivid imagery to describe specific moments and habits shared with their partner, such as wrapping hair with scarves, laughing with a cackle, and watching their child discover the world.
  • Including specific details that create a sense of intimacy and familiarity, such as the routine of weekend mornings with bagels and bacon, or the way their partner likes their pizza extra crispy.
  • Weaving together both small, everyday details like wrapping hair with scarves and requesting extra crispy pizza, with deeper, more intimate moments such as holding hands when scared. This juxtaposition emphasizes the significance of both the day-to-day and profound experiences shared in relationships.
  • Repetition of the phrase “because” at the beginning of each stanza emphasizes the cumulative effect of these reasons and reinforces the central theme of the poem.
  • Utilizing enjambment, where lines flow into each other without punctuation at the end of a line, to create a smooth and continuous rhythm, mirroring the ongoing nature of their love and appreciation.
  • Appealing to the senses, describing the taste of cinnamon rolls with maple syrup and honey mustard, the sound of morning singing, and the touch of holding hands when scared.

Possibilities for Writers: 

  • Observe the small moments and details in their own lives and relationships, drawing inspiration from the unique aspects of their experiences, just as Smith does.
  • Reflect on their own feelings and experiences, identifying moments or traits that stand out in their relationships and considering how these moments reflect their love and appreciation for their connections.
  • Experiment with using repetition, enjambment, sensory details, etc., using the form of this poem as a guide.
  • Tap into their emotions and express them in their writing, mirroring the sincerity and depth with which the poet conveys their love and appreciation for their partner.
  • Analyze this poem as an example of effective revision and editing, examining how the poet has meticulously chosen each word and phrase to convey meaning and emotion, and applying similar attention to detail in their own writing process.