Margin Notes



file2-2For the first six weeks of school, teachers are often focused on building a community of readers and writers in their classrooms – this is a great investment that pays off dividends for the rest of the year.

A word of caution, hold off on getting your students to do their own shelfies until everyone has read a few books. This prevents some students from being embarrassed by their lack of reading over the summer. Remember, we want to grow their reading identity, not stunt it!

Take a look at the shelfies below from two middle school teachers at Ridgeview Middle School and one of our literacy coaches:



Every year I look forward to the announcement of the CBC Short Story Prize. When the longlist was announced (shout out to New Brunswick for making the list), I reviewed the interviews with some of the nominees. I love how each entry is described in five-ish words and my “reading like a teacher of writing brain” started thinking about ways students could use this strategy:

  • Describe the books you are currently reading in five-ish words
  • Summarize this text in five-ish words
  • Work with a group to consolidate your five-ish word summaries into ten-ish word summary
  • Explain the piece of writing you are currently working on in five-ish words

The “ish” gives students a bit of flexibility but challenging students to grasp the meaning of a full-length text in about five words requires them to be precise and deliberate in their choices. Try inviting your students to use five-ish word summaries or descriptions.



“If learning, particularly that which takes place in a classroom, floats on a sea of talk, what kind of talk? And, what kind of learning?” ~ Simpson and Mercer

Bigger IdeasIn Building Bigger Ideas Maria Nichols defines talk as purposeful when it honors constructive intent, harnesses the power of varied perspectives, and engages participants over expanded time and space. Purposeful talk thrives in a dialogic space, “the shared dynamic space of meaning that opens up between or among participants in a dialogue. It forms as we immerse fully with thoughts that compel us, wrestle with the tug of varied perspectives, and construct unexpected new ideas with others.”

According to Nichols, two critical conditions for cultivating dialogic spaces are supporting children as they engage with each other and supporting children as they engage with ideas. In this context, “learning communities put talk to work, and the work of talk creates social bonds that continually strengthen the community.”

We can teach purposeful talk by teaching about talk as our students make meaning through talk. Building Bigger Ideas offers a responsive three-step framework:

  • focus children on aspects of purposeful talk behaviors,
  • facilitate as children engage with ideas and each other, and
  • offer feedback that links purposeful talk behaviors to the process of constructing meaning.

Using this framework, we can teach students to hear all voices, grow ideas, and negotiate meaning. The goal is to establish an environment where students use talk with independence to collaborate and build community. Purposeful talk, in the words of IDEO’s David Kelley, helps “you get to a place you just can’t get to in one mind.”

Building Bigger Ideas may be targeted to Kindergarten to Grade 5, but it will support teachers of all grades and levels in establishing purposeful talk in the classroom. This resource is a terrific complement to professional resource libraries that include Teaching Talk by Kara Pranikoff and Choice Words by Peter Johnston.



When we heard about Kim Skilliter’s initiative The Humans of FHS, we asked her to please share with us (and you!) all of the details around this project. We are so happy she agreed! Here’s what she had to say:

I have always LOVED the Humans of New York site. I love how these stories work to soften the edges of a huge city, and to remind us that, at the core of society, no matter what is happening in the world, are people with incredible burdens, triumphs, challenges – and all it takes are a few questions to reveal what is below their facades. It is a reminder of how extraordinary we ordinary people are. As a teacher, I am an eternal optimist, and it does my heart good to know that, as Brandon Stanton describes in a TED Talk,, even the most intimidating people have been willing to share their stories with him. All he has ever had to do is ask.

In my never-ending – and, honestly, often unsuccessful – quest to find something that will appeal to my English 123 classes, I thought I would try to see how a Humans of FHS project would work. We explored the HONY site, learned a little bit about its history, and then I set the students loose in the halls for a few days. Admin loves when I do that! All jokes aside, they, and all the FHS staff, were incredibly supportive of this idea. Many of them are the subjects of the students’ profiles, and this is a testament to their kindness and approachability.

Once the work was complete, I printed the slides, and, with the enthusiastic support of the librarians, students displayed them on both floors of the library, facing out to the hallways. The response from the FHS community and our supporters was very positive. I still have a few tweaks to make; I was too hands-on with the proofreading of the slides, for example. I need to find more time to sit with students and to guide them toward, let’s say, more conventional English spelling and grammar, instead of just cleaning the slides up myself on the weekend. I need to encourage them to reach out to people they do not know. It is a work-in-progress, but it does work, and I got a huge validation of this one day from a normally very unimpressed student who, when asked how I can improve this experience for next year’s students, said “Well, the least you can do is put our names on the slides. I mean, we did the work!” She wanted everyone to see her name. She wanted to take ownership of her work. She was proud. For me, it does not get much better than that.


Kim is a teacher at Fredericton High School. She teaches 112, 122 and 123 English. She is always looking for new ideas, so she loves to read this blog!



Field Guide.jpgIn his debut novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe’s influences and inspirations are front and center. While he shares the Haitian-Canadian (je m’excuse, Quebecois) immigrant heritage with his protagonist Norris Kaplan, Philippe also directly references the 2004 high school dramedy Mean Girls, and the themes of this movie echo throughout the book.

As the new kid in school, after being dragged by his mom from Montreal to Austin, Texas, the socially selective (meaning slightly snobby and slightly awkward) Norris finds himself in a completely new setting: it’s hot, constantly hot, he’s the only French speaking student in the school, the only Canadian, and one of the only ones with a brown complexion. He is utterly prepared to hate his new life and carries the appropriate chip on his shoulder to school with him.

What unfolds is a story of, yes, discovery, but also an exploration and subversion of modern prejudice – the ones Kaplan fears, and the ones he realizes he holds.

This book should quench the thirst of most readers as it’s very relatable and cultural references are there for context and flavour. The quality of Philippe’s story and his writing style are impressive, but it should be noted that it does include mature content.

Will Milner is an English & Outdoor Pursuits teacher at Fredericton High School, where he also coaches soccer and track & field. When not teaching, or coaching, he can be found with his wife Jen outside with their dogs and playing with their daughter Olivia.

Try This Tomorrow: A Brief History of…


Here in New Brunswick, we have achievement standards for writing that outline the qualities of a variety of writing forms. We’ve been working hard to find examples of places where these forms live in the world outside of school. Where do readers encounter these kinds of writing? What do they look like out in the wild beyond the school walls?

One of the writing forms found in the Grades 6-12 standards for writing in the explanatory essay. This type of writing tells how something came to be or how something works. “A Brief History of…”  writing, is a version of the explanatory report that gives students an opportunity to explore a topic of interest and incorporate research.

This Brief History of the Waffle Iron from Smithsonian Magazine is a fantastic example for students to check out as a mentor text for “A Brief History of…” writing.

Just because the explanatory report is listed as a form of writing doesn’t mean we have to limit our students’ writing to printed text. Students can create their “A Brief History of…” as a podcast such as the A Brief History of Timekeeping episode from The Secret History of the Future or a video like The Secret History of Dogs (TED-Ed).

“A Brief History of…” writing incorporates explanation, analysis, cause-and-effect, and storytelling. If you’re looking for a unique take on the explanatory report, invite your students to create one.




As you are getting to know your students as readers and establishing a reading community within your classrooms, check out Jarrett Lerner’s artwork Kids Need Books of ALL Kinds ( and Grant Snider’s comic Books Are… ( These two graphics are sure to ignite many conversations around books, what they offer us, and why we need so many different kinds of them!

Here are three possibilities of how to use these in your classroom:

  1. Students could respond to the images in their Writer’s Notebooks and then share their ideas to grow their thinking.
  2. You could share how some of the different books you have read match up with some of the artwork and ask students to think about the same. This could be followed up with the questions:
    1. What did I learn about myself as a reader today?
    2. What did we learn about each other as readers?
  3. You could use Kelly Gallagher’s Say-Mean-Matter Questions to guide students through their written or spoken conversations about the texts:
    1. What does the text say?
    2. What does the text mean?
    3. Why does the text matter?

If you use these in your classroom or have other ideas on how to share them with students, please comment below or tag us on social media!



Girl Made of Stars CoverHow could something so heartbreaking be so full of hope? This question remained in the back of my mind as I read Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake.

As twins, Mara and Owen share an unbelievable bond. Ironically, it is this bond that threatens to tear them apart. When Owen is accused of rape, and the victim is Mara’s best friend, Hannah, Mara’s world begins to spiral. Her family expects she will support her twin, Owen, citing that this is all a “misunderstanding”. Mara’s bond with both the accuser and the victim makes it hard for her to make sense of the situation: “I need Owen to explain this. Because, yes, I do know Owen would never do that, but I also know Hannah would never lie about something like that.”

Challenged to find truth, Mara reveals a long buried trauma of her own, and begins her own journey of healing and hope.

In Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake tackles many tough issues: rape, sexuality, anxiety, and gender identity. From the ripple down effects that sexual assaults create on the lives of the victims and those close to them, to the struggle with one’s inner conflict, this young adult novel tackles tough issues. With well-developed, diverse, and complex characters, who are both very likeable and very flawed at the same time, Girl Made of Stars makes for a powerful read.

With Girl Made of Stars, Ashley Herring Blake facilitates conversations about so much more than the literature and writing style. This novel sets the stage for discussions about consent, anxiety, victim blaming, and other important questions that teens may be facing.

Erma Appleby is an English Language Arts teacher at Oromocto High School, in Oromocto, New Brunswick.  She enjoys the discussion that literature can ignite and the role that it plays in our lives.

Building A Community of Readers


Here’s an easy activity from Cultivating Readers by Anne Elliott and Mary Lynch (bonus-they are also Canadian educators!) that some teachers are trying out to start the year. Basically, you cut out footprints (copies are available in the book) and write down what you read over the summer. You chat with your students about your footprints (sharing your reading identity) then you ask them, “What did you learn about me as a reader?” They can turn and talk (talk helps to grow their thinking), share with the class what they learned about you, write their answers on a piece of chart paper and voila-there’s a snapshot of your reading identity.

We love this one because it lets students practice talking and thinking without being vulnerable about their own reading lives (until we get to know each other), and it gives them the language and vocabulary to eventually start talking about their own reading identity, which is essential to them becoming life-long readers.

If you try this out, please share your thoughts and experiences!



Someone I Used to KnowThe novel Someone I Used to Know by Patty Blount is about not only the survivor of rape and her interactions with others, but also the aftermath for her family and friends. It is this side of the story that I enjoyed the most, as emotional as it may have been. I also appreciated the strong male character presence in this book, and I feel that makes it a good read for a wide range of readers.

The book does not go into all the gritty details of the actual rape, but it certainly deals with Ashley’s thoughts and flashbacks about it and the triggers she faces on a daily basis. Someone I Used to Know is, from my perspective, a clear window and definitely an eye-opener into the effects of rape on not only the victim but also everyone she is connected with. The chapters alternate between Ashley and her brother Derek, so we get both of their perspectives on how they are each feeling and also how they assume the other is feeling. I think this is the way with many difficult family situations, where we find it easier not to mention the “incident” and think we know what is happening with each other when, in fact, we are wrong. This leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings when discussing the issue head-on might be more beneficial for everyone involved.

The book is emotionally-driven and shows us how the relationships within the novel are affected by this traumatic event. We see how athletes and society revere their skill and entertainment value over the lives of “regular” people. We see how the victim suffers long after everyone assumes “they should be over it by now” and continues to suffer even after the rapist has served his time. We see how family dynamics change during a crisis and who is willing to stand up for what is right…even when it might not be the popular thing to do, and we are reminded that support comes from many different places, sometimes from where you least expect, but you have to be open to it.

I feel this book could be a beneficial read for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters. The daily decisions we take for granted continue to cause trauma and stress for these victims, and this book is able to educate us in an emotionally powerful way.

Paula Richards is a fairly new teacher to English Language Arts. She loves to read and has recently been surprised by a variety of new genres. She has three children who she tries to share her love of reading with through many library visits and too much money spent on book orders!