In Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s newest joint publication 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency, they share a great idea for writer’s notebooks. The idea is borrowed from William Stafford, former U.S. poet laureate, who suggests starting each day by returning to the last line written the day before and asking if there is more to say about what was written. What Kittle and Gallagher recommend is: after students have had a few weeks of notebook writing they can be invited to underline the last line of each of their notebook entries and choose one to copy onto a new page. They then use this line to write what more they have to say. As they remind us, part of the writing opportunities that a writer’s notebook opens up is the ability to go dig into what is already writing and find, “…the inspiration needed to move a writer forward.”
In How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times Roy Peter Clark advises “if you want to write long, begin by writing short.” This really sparked my thinking on short writing mentor texts that can be used in the service of writing both short and long.
According to Clark: “If your goal is to write short and well, you must begin by reading the best short writing you can find. Start by keeping a ‘commonplace book,’ a notebook that contains treasured short passages from your favorite authors next to bits and pieces of your own writing.”
Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, recognizes that short writing reflects its own conventions—the strategies that make very short messages effective, interesting, and memorable. He explains that “if extended prose writing is like a painting or illustration, microstyle is like graphic design. It employs a subset of techniques used in more detailed arts, and because it serves different ends, it involves techniques and conventions of its own.”
Spending time close reading short writing is time well-spent for writers. Reading short writing through this lens reveals what Roy Peter Clark describes as “the most strategic moves practiced by the best writers.” We grow in our craft (both short and long) when we study the writing of others, name the moves we notice, imitate them, and adapt them to make them our own. Samples of short writing can do a lot of heavy lifting as mentor texts. Students can explore several examples in a short period of time and focus on a specific craft move or element. Their noticings can then be applied to their own short writing or incorporated as a component of a longer piece.
Christopher Johnson captures this practice in his mantra: “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity.”
Here are some excellent examples of short writing I’ve discovered (or rediscovered) recently that invite writers to reflect on the craft moves that get, in Johnson’s words, “a lot of idea out of a little message.” I’ve captured many examples from these texts in my own writers notebooks to use as micro-mentors.
In their new book, Intervention Reinvention: A Volume-Based Approach to Reading Success, authors Stephanie Harvey, Annie Ward, Maggie Hoddinott and Suzanne Carroll advocate teachers create and curate what they refer to as, “…robust, vibrant, and diverse classroom libraries”(p. 29). One way they propose to curate this library is to actively engage in decolonizing your bookshelves. Classroom libraries need to reflect all students and the authors provide an abundance of research to support this stance.
As early as 1965 the Saturday Review article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” by Dr. Nancy Larrick, stated that though integration was the law of the land, most books children saw were white. This lack of representation, she when on to say, “ …harms children of color by depriving them of opportunities to see themselves in books they read and in how they imagine their futures”. Almost 50 years later in 2014 author Walter Dean Myers published an op-ed in the New York Times, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”. In 2016 and 2019 Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor at St. Catherine University and illustrator David Huyck published what is now a will known infographic displaying data collected about the representation of children of color in books published prior to 2019.
In February 2020, author, and educator Zaretta Hammond wrote, “Revisiting Your Library: Decolonizing, Not Just Diversifying”. She argues that while teachers are ensuring more books with brown faces are in their libraries, these books often still perpetuate black stereotypes. For example, books that portray buses, boycotts, and basketball or only storylines that examine the challenges of inner city living. She goes on to explain that while having books around a ‘Black Lives Matter’ theme and social justice is part of the black experience, it is not the only part. Black life and lives are diverse and the books that reflect their lives should show this diversity. Hammond offers the following three reflective questions to determine whether a book is worth including:
- Does the book go beyond the typical themes about characters of color?
- Do the children of color look authentic?
- Are the texts, especially fictional stories, ‘enabling’?
(David Huyak, in consultation with Sarh Park Dahlen – Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)
Consider taking time to ask these questions of the books in your library and decolonize your shelves. Once finished, if you are looking for titles to add to your collection, check out our virtual bookshelves.
To learn more about the book Intervention Reinvention: A Volume-Based Approach to Reading Success, click here.
LeBron James and Andrea William’s newest release We Are Family is the story of five middle school students with different struggles and circumstance bound together by their love of basketball. Jayden Carr is a talented player with dreams of basketball scholarships, but also of pulling his family out of poverty. Tamika Beck is a young female player determined to show Hoop Group how archaic their gender rules are while finally getting the respect she deserves from her father. Anthony Pierson needs this group to keep him out of the trouble that is fueled by his family situation. Dexter Dingal needs a place he finally belongs. And Chris King thinks he needs Hoop Group so he can finally be named captain, but actually needs something much different.
Grade 7 is the year that the middle school basketball players have been waiting for – it’s the year they can finally join Hoop Group – the group that can open all the doors they hope to walk through in the future. But the coach is sick, and Hoop Group is in trouble, and the young basketball players are feeling defeated. With equal doses of hope and commitment, these young ballers come together to try to do the impossible, and end of learning about much more than just the game of basketball.
Although a story about basketball, it is also a story of hope. LeBron James says in his letter to readers that he wrote this story because he hopes everyone who reads it “…knows that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it”. This is a great story for any middle school reader who needs some hope in their lives.
When I am driving anywhere, the car radio is generally tuned to CBC. On this particular day, I just happened to catch an episode of the Podcast Playlist where the host was interviewing Helen Zaltzman. Helen is the host of one of my favourite podcasts –The Allusionist. Near the end of the show, the interviewer asked Helen for some of her podcast recommendations and Helen then went on to describe a club she is in…one of the coolest “clubs” I’ve ever heard of: Podcast Clubs.
Here is how it works:
Helen and her friends all choose an episode of a different podcast for their friends to listen to during the month. This can be any podcast, but it should be one that they really enjoyed and think their friends would too. Then, they meet online to discuss the podcasts. I believe there are 5 people in this podcast club. Meaning that they would have 5 podcasts to discuss. They do this on a monthly basis.
Well, my mind was blown. And, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t thought of this myself.
What a quick and easy kind of club to set up! It’s something that wouldn’t require a lot of prep time. All you would need are some podcasts for you and your students to listen to, along with format for discussing the podcasts.
Since I love podcasts, Here are some podcasts that I would recommend:
Instead of listening to different podcasts, you could have the whole class listen to an episode of the same podcast.
I would also give some thought about the purpose for listening to the podcasts:
- Is it Author’s Craft? Maybe, you want students to think about how the podcast was crafted and notice details of the and then try out some podcasting of their own. Students might make note of the interview style of the host.
- Is it Author’s purpose? Maybe you are having students examine the “why” of the podcast. What makes this topic important and worth discussing? What is the message? What does it prompt you to do?
- Is it Speaking and Listening? Maybe you want students to work on their discussion skills.
Podcast Clubs would be an excellent way of exploring the following ELA outcomes:
1. Build understanding by listening to, reading, and viewing a range of spoken, written, and visual texts representing all voices.
2. Respond personally and critically to the works of authors, creators, illustrators, and speakers
3. Speak, write and represent to learn about self, others, and the world
Try it out! And, we’d love to hear how it goes.
Oh, and if you’re interested in the podcasts Helen Zaltzman recommended…here you go!
Gun. Shock. Gun. Disbelief. Gun. Fear.
The snub-nosed revolver shakes with tiny tremors from the jittery hand aiming at my face.
I’m gonna die.
My nose twitches at a greasy sweetness. Familiar. Vanilla and mineral oil. WD-40. Someone used it to clean the gun. More scents: pine, damp moss, skunky sweat, and cat pee.
The jittery hand makes a hacking motion with the gun, as if wielding a machete instead. Each diagonal slice toward the ground gives me hope. Better a random target than me.
But then terror grips my heart again. The gun. Back at my face.
Mom. She won’t survive my death. One bullet will kill us both.
A brave hand reaches for the gun. Fingers outstretched.
Demanding. Give it. Now.
I am thinking of my mother when the blast changes everything.”
Angeline Boulley’s debut novel Firekeeper’s Daughter shares the story of Daunis Fontaine, the daughter of a local Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) hockey hero and a rich girl from the right side of the river. Daunis has had difficulty her entire life fitting in and feeling accepted by both communities she ferries between. As I settled into this novel, I was convinced I was reading a coming-of-age story about how Daunis will find her place within her two families and succeed in her desire to become a doctor. I could not have been more wrong! While Daunis does endeavor to discover who she is, this book becomes so much more…a murder mystery entangled in organized crime, a love story, and at the same time, a beautiful reflection of indigenous teachings.
Boulley crafts her text with carefully layered hints that have the reader speculating who is behind the murders and distribution of crystal meth at the centre of the community’s heartache. She develops characters that are strong, loyal, and mysterious. Daunis finds herself embroiled in the mystery and using both her traditional indigenous teachings and her uncle’s scientific method to find the killers. Will she succeed?
Due to mature language and themes this book is matched best to older readers. I highly recommend Firekeeper’s Daughter for grade 11 or 12 classroom libraries.
To learn more about Angeline Boulley and Firekeeper’s Daughter click here.
In her debut middle grade novel, Dress Coded, Carrie Firestone pens a story all middle level classrooms need to have in their library. Molly Frost is an
eighth-grade student who has spent the last three years of her life terrified of being dress coded by “Fingertip” the school’s dress code enforcer. Her female classmates have all suffered the same fate and when one friend, Olivia, is singled out, painfully embarrassed, and blamed for the senior class camping trip being cancelled, Molly has had enough.
Molly begins a podcast called “Dress Coded” to call out this unfair treatment and the inconsistent application of the school dress code policy by the administration. As Molly convinces friends to share their stories, her following grows, including former students now in high school, who share their experiences of body shaming. When one girl is coded for having hair styled “too high”, Molly decides they need to go to the school board. This leads to her school’s first “camp in”.
Dress Coded sheds light on a practice that shames girls during a vulnerable time in their lives and pokes holes in the argument that dress codes are necessary to prevent boys from being “distracted”. I loved how Molly found her voice and stood up for her beliefs and overcame her own person struggles. Her strength, resilience and perseverance are to be admired.
Borders, a graphic novel illustrated by Natasha Donovan and written by Thomas King, tells the story of a mother’s pride in her identity and will to not back down when it is threatened to be taken from her.
Laetitia leaves the home she shared with her mother and younger brother to cross the border to America. Leaving without her mother’s blessing, Laetitia craves independence and adventure while her mom is nervous to let her daughter go. After many postcards and requests from Letitia, her mom finally decides to accept the invitation.
Nearing the border, the young boy notices a shift in his mother’s excitement. She begins to drive slowly, and he can feel her hesitation and alertness. Arriving at the border, they are asked the typical border questions, and when she is asked what her citizenship is, she responds, “Blackfoot” (p. 43). Even amidst pressure and manipulation, she is unwilling to respond differently: she is Blackfoot. This mode of identification leads them into four days of being stuck between the Canadian and American border, between Coutts and Sweetgrass, denied entry to both countries. On the fourth day, only after reporters and television crews arrive to film the scene and conduct interviews, are the mother and son permitted to enter America to visit Laetitia.
The unwavering love and sheer force of will this mother holds is powerful and inspiring. She lives unapologetically proud of her identity and the value and worth of being Blackfoot, despite what the systems attempting to control her declare as true and necessary. This story is a strong opening to conversations about Indigenous rights to belonging and identity.
I cannot end this review without highlighting the words Thomas King and Natasha Donovan write in the opening of the book. King challenges the oppressive systems in his dedication by writing, “For the Blackfoot, who understand that the border is the figment of someone else’s imagination.” Donovan dedicates her work to three generations of mothers who provided her “with strength of every journey.” Their talents shine through their work, and I am so thankful for their passion in writing and telling this story.
This graphic novel is a gem in my classroom library, already having been signed out by all my avid graphic novel readers, and others who wanted to read it too. The worker at the duty-free shop between the borders, Mel, is right: justice is a damn hard thing to get, but we shouldn’t give up. Our students need to know this truth, and see what this struggle looks like in the books they read, to better prepare them to face injustices head-on in their own lives.
Katie Prescott is a grade nine teacher at FHS who loves reading and learning about the world with her students. When not at school, she can often be found snuggled up by the fire with a cozy blanket reading to many of her own children at home.