Margin Notes



180 DaysAt the beginning of this school year, three teachers from high schools across the district embarked on a literacy adventure that grouped their students together in Cross-School Book Clubs. The project was sponsored by funding provided by the NB Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to support Global Competencies. Inspired by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents (2018), Sarah Kennedy (OHS), Angela Lardner (SHS), and Sara Bamford (FHS) created an opportunity for their students to engage in shared reading and conversation as a way to better understand themselves and the diverse world around them.

During our first planning day as a team, we learned about the Office 365 technology the students and teachers would use to communicate (Thank you to our amazing Tech Team, Bryan Facey, Jeff Whipple, Carmel Desjardins, and Wendy Thomas, who equipped and supported us throughout the project!). One of the first decisions we made was to participate in our own book club to create a model for students. We read The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah and discussed the book over a four week period online. During our time together, we also co-created our vision, co-planned timelines, and chose the books we would book talk to each of the four classes. One of the most exciting parts of this project was that students had the opportunity to read their TOP choice. This was also one of Sara Bamford’s highlights: “What I loved most about this adventure is the choice that the students had. I really think that they didn’t believe that they were going to get their first choice until it was physically in their hands.”

In planning for the Book Clubs, the teachers decided that in order for students to have authentic conversations about the books they were reading, they needed to be able to discuss in the way they chose, not a way decided on by the teacher. Instead of being provided with guiding questions each week, the students took ownership over deciding what was meaningful and worthy of discussion. Here’s what Sarah Kennedy had to say about the online discussions: “Being able to see their responses was a great way to see how engaged they were with their novels and how they were sharing their thinking with others. I had some students who said they would rather share their thoughts verbally in a traditional group in class, but I liked that this format pushed them a bit when it came to organizing their thoughts in a different format and asking questions to engage others.” Angela Lardner made similar observations, commenting, “It was rewarding to see the engagement among students from different schools as they discussed novels. I was amazed at the amount of predictions, inferences and text-to-world connections made.”

Here is an excerpt from an online discussion about After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay:

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Here is an except from an online discussion about People Kill People by Ellen Hopkins:

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Teaching TalkEncouraged by Kara Pranikoff’s Teaching Talk: A Practical Guide to Fostering Student Thinking and Conversation (2017), the focus of assessment for the Book Clubs were the Speaking and Listening Outcomes. Midway through the Book Clubs, students took time to self-reflect on their contributions to the online discussion in relation to the curriculum outcomes. They were also provided with feedback from the teacher who was overseeing their group (this was not always their classroom teacher), who also provided them with a summative assessment after all discussions were completed. If teachers chose to ask their students to complete a final product on their book choice, that assessment focused on Reading and Writing/Representing Provincial Standards.

It was such a pleasure to work with these three passionate teachers and their students. Their openness and willingness to explore a new form of Book Clubs that allowed for communities of readers to come together across schools is truly inspiring.



The open letter is a form of writing that offers nearly unlimited possibilities for writers. Typically addressed to a specific reader or group, but intended to be read by a wider and more public audience, the open letter can be crafted as a memoir, a persuasive piece, social commentary, or a small moment/slice of life. The open letter can be serious and formal, or it can be personal and humorous in that “you’re laughing because you’ve been there” way.

Regardless of the approach, the open letter requires some intentional writer’s moves when it comes to addressing the audience. The open letter directly addresses the named reader or group, but it must be written to engage the public audience.

McSweeney’s features a column called Open Letters to People or Entities who are Unlikely to Respond. Some of my favorite open letters are:

An Open Letter to Coastal Living Magazine

An Open Letter to the Immigration Officer Who Confused Me for a Criminal

An Open Letter to those Who Want to Liberate Me from My Hijab

An Open Letter to Collegiate Basketball Benchwarmers

An Open Letter to the Box of Loose Cables in My Closet

I’ve also found some excellent examples on HuffPost:

Open Letter to the Lazy Mom in the Grocery Store

An Open Letter to My Adolescent Daughter

An Open Letter to Teenagers from a Toddler Mom

Your students might also enjoy My Open Letter to Open Letters Everywhere (Odyssey) as a humorous reminder to keep it real and avoid open letter clichés.

Book Recommendation: Made To Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath


Our literacy team recently finished a book study on Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This book is filled with strategies for creating and communicating ideas that will be “sticky” with an audience. Although not specifically directed toward educators, we found lots of applications to our work with teachers and students.

The Heath brothers define ideas that stick as those that are understood and remembered and that have a lasting impact on the audience by changing opinions or behavior. After studying countless examples of ideas that fit this definition, including everything from marketing campaigns to urban legends, they identified six principles of stickiness:

1. Simple

“It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘sound bites.’ You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by ‘simple’ is finding the core of the idea. ‘Finding the core’ means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence (p 27).”

2. Unexpected

“Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprises make us pay attention and think. The extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories. Surprise gets our attention. Sometimes the attention is fleeting, but in other cases surprise can lead to enduring attention. Surprise can prompt us to hunt for underlying causes, to imagine other possibilities, to figure out how to avoid surprises in the future (p. 68).”

3. Concrete

“This is how concreteness helps us understand—it helps us construct higher, more abstract insights on the building blocks of our existing knowledge and perceptions. Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air (p. 106).”

4. Credible

“We don’t always have an external authority who can vouch for our message; most of the time our messages have to vouch for themselves. They must have ‘internal credibility (p. 106).”

5. Emotional

“How can we make people care about ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities—not only to the people they are right now but also the people they would like to be (p. 203).”

6. Stories

“Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and inspire. And most of the time we don’t even have to use much creativity to harness these powers—we just need to be ready to spot the good ones that life generates every day. (p. 237).”

One of the ideas that stuck with me as I read and discussed this book (see what I did there?) was the concept of the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we can’t unlearn it. The more expertise we develop in an area, the more challenging it is to remember what it’s like not to know. Our knowledge and understanding make it difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the learner, which is critical if we want our ideas to stick.

Made to Stick is an interesting and engaging read for anyone who wants their ideas to impact their audience, whether it is one person in a conversation, a class of students, or colleagues in a presentation. It offers practical and actionable wisdom that is illustrated by stories from many contexts where sticky ideas matter



What I Was Reading:My-Heart-Fills-With-Happiness.jpeg

Monique Gray Smith wrote the picture book My Heart Fills With Happiness to support the wellness of Indigenous children and families and to encourage readers to reflect on the moments in life that bring them joy. This beautiful book, with illustrations by Julie Flett, is written in both Plains Cree and English, with the words on each page printed in both languages in some versions.

My Heart Fills With Happiness

My heart fills with happiness when…

I see the face of someone I love

I smell bannock baking in the oven

I sing

My heart fills with happiness when…

I feel the sun dancing on my cheeks

I walk barefoot on the grass

I dance

My heart fills with happiness when…

I hold the hand of someone I love

I listen to stories

I drum

What fills YOUR heart with happiness?

You can also view and listen to the author read the book here:

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  • There are three stanzas, each with four lines
  • Each stanza begins with the same repeated line
  • The second line of each of the stanzas follows a similar rhythm with nine syllables
  • The second, third, and fourth lines all begin with “I”
  • Each stanza ends with two words and a total of two syllables
  • The last line invites readers to reflect and write their own poem

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Writing their own poem about what makes them happy
  • Trying out rhythms that are similar throughout the poem
  • Translating their poem into another language
  • Illustrating their poem
  • Sharing their poem with others and maybe even children at a nearby school

Guest Writer Krista deMolitor Recommends Flying Lessons & Other Stories


Flying Lessons & Other Stories is the cure for the indecisive reader. This anthology of short stories is written by some well-known and lesser-known young-adult authors of this time, including one story by acclaimed writer of Booked and Crossover, Kwame Alexander.

This book starts off strong with a short story by Matt De La Pena entitled: “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium”. What a title! When the main character (whom addresses the reader directly throughout the story) has out-grown shooting hoops with his normal friends at the local court, he hears of a spot across town by his father’s work offering a higher calibre of play. He commits to waking up early on his summer vacation to go into work with his dad at 5am every single morning. His commitment to the game teaches him a lot about himself, his love for the game, and his father. It’s a great story for any reader.

The more I read, the more I appreciated the selection of short stories. Each story brought with it a unique perspective and new positive and negative stereotypes. The writing is fantastic and the selection of stories seamlessly flow through diverse topics with an array of characters. There are numerous opportunities for mentor texts in this book as well; whatever strategy you want to teach will have plenty of examples in these stories.

The characters are authentic and relatable which makes it an easy choice for a classroom lacking in that area. Race, sexual orientation, gender diversity, culture, and other topics relevant to today’s readers are explored tastefully and realistically through entertaining stories.

Not only would Flying Lessons & Other Stories make a great addition to any middle level classroom, it would also be a great choice for some variety with read-alouds. Book talking individual stories also proved useful as many students were asking me weeks later to borrow the “book about flying”. Students can easily pick it up and flip to the short story that interests them the most (or, find the story with the most captivating title!) and read as much or as little of it as they like.

Overall, it was a great read and an absolute necessity for any classroom.

Krista deMolitor is a grade 7 Language Arts teacher at George Street Middle School in Fredericton.



ShoutWhat I Was Reading:

Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest book, written in verse, is both a memoir and a call to action against censorship, sexual assault, and the silencing of victims.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  • In this section the author uses a numbered list to write short narratives to help the reader understand her year in grade 9.
  • Some of the numbered items recount events and some reveal her internal thinking and struggles.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • This piece could be used to help students reflect on a year in their life.
  • Use the title “ninth grade: my year of living stupidly” to create your own title “____ grade: my year of living_______”
  • Students can then use a numbered list to include short pieces of writing that reveal why this was their year of living ______”

Guest Writer Elizabeth Andrews Recommends: You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino


You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino may be aimed at middle level students but the complex ideas of family, ability, racism, and police violence are anything but juvenile. Using interwoven story lines, Gino challenges the reader to interrogate their own privilege and explore how they may be contributing to the marginalization of others—even if this was never their intention. This is done in a developmentally appropriate way that becomes the subtext of a heartwarming story.

The main character in the book, Jilly, is a white, middle class girl growing up in Oaktown. She lives with her mother and father, as well as a new baby sister. Her life has been safe and comfortable but as the book progresses, she becomes increasingly aware of how society marginalizes people (including her family and friends) because they are black, deaf, or LGBTQ+. Jilly learns that in order to change things, you have to first understand how you are contributing to the problem.

There are lots of moments that relieve the tension that Gino has created. From peanut butter sandwiches and online fandoms to best friends and silly secret codes, this book strikes the right balance to engage middle level readers (particularly grade 6 and 7) while challenging their thinking. There are many opportunities for mini-lessons, especially on form and text features but also for figurative language and how to use an appendix. It is the perfect book to use for a reading ladder that might also include titles such as Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas.

There are two sections at the end of the book that are definitely worth exploring with students: The Author’s Note and the Acknowledgements. You might be tempted to overlook them—don’t. Gino uses this as an opportunity to ask forgiveness for sharing the stories of marginalized people through a white protagonist with hearing and explains the reasons behind this choice. They (Gino’s preferred pronoun) also take the opportunity to explain their personal connections to the topics and provide context. I might be tempted to look at these final sections first, as they will help readers build understanding and create anchors prior to engaging in the text. It will provide you with some really interesting mini-lessons as well.

If you are looking for your next quick read-aloud, or simply need a suggestion for students that love realistic fiction, I highly recommend You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino.

Elizabeth Andrews is a guest blogger for Margin Notes. She teaches grade 6, 7, and 8 Language Arts, Art, and Music at Chipman Forest Avenue School in Chipman, New Brunswick. She is self-declared nerd and lover of science fiction and fantasy.

“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” ~ Tyrion Lannister (A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin)



NotYourPrincessIn #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Carleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota) writes a letter titled “Dear Past Self.” The letter acknowledges hardships, speaks personal truths, and provides inspiration and words of encouragement. Fillspipe gives herself permission to express her anger and sadness while also empowering herself to move beyond those feelings and love herself. The letter is written in a way that it could be for anyone, but whatever history and personal experiences Isabella holds are woven into the power of the words. The artwork and self-portrait make the letter even more personal and beautiful.

Dear Past Self

This letter could be used as a mentor text for students to write their own “Dear Past Self” letters in their Writer’s Notebook, as part of a multi-genre portfolio, or as a piece of narrative or persuasive writing.

If you would like to pull in other mentor texts with a similar style, The Player’s Tribune has a column titled “Letter To My Younger Self” with a collection of letters:

Book Recommendation: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson


In Harbor Me, we meet Haley, a grade 6 girl with a secret she has only told her best friend and a handful of adults. At school, she is grouped with 5 other students to meet at the end of the day in an empty classroom so they can talk and share.  Everyone is reluctant at first but Haley breaks the ice with her hand-held recorder as her new friends realize they want their stories to be heard and remembered.  As the middle schoolers begin to trust one another, their words pour out stories about immigration, racial profiling, bullying, incarceration, and death, and these wounds are filled in return with poetry, music, love, trust, forgiveness, and friendship.

This is a beauty of a book.  The topics are big, and refreshingly, not dumbed down for middle school students.  Instead, they are given the respect they deserve and the author, Jacqueline Woodson, clearly believes that young people can handle these topics; age does not prevent tough situations in life from happening.  This novel is such a great example of literature being both a window and a mirror for our students and having this in your classroom library will be a game changer for some readers.



What I Was Reading:vox.jpg

Vox by Christina Dalcher was a two-sitting read for me. Once I started this suspenseful, fast-paced thriller I didn’t want to put it down. Vox depicts a United States where women have been silenced by the President’s decision to limit them to only 100 words per day. Every woman and girl is forced to wear a word counter that provides a shock when the daily quota has been reached.

Early in the novel, the narrator, Dr. Jean McLellan, reflects on how things are for her now compared to how they used to be before the word allotment:

This is how things are now: We have allotments of one hundred words a day. My books, even the old copies of Julia Child and—here’s irony—the tattered red-and-white-checked Better Homes and Gardens a friend decided would be a cute joke for a wedding gift, are locked in a cupboard so Sonia can’t get at them. Which means I can’t get at them either. Patrick carries the keys around like a weight, and sometimes I think it’s the heaviness of this burden that makes him look older.

It’s the little stuff I miss most: jars of pens tucked into the corners of every room, notepads wedged in between cookbooks, the dry-erase shopping list on the wall next to the spice cabinet. Even my old refrigerator magnets, the ones Steven used to concoct ridiculous Italo-English sentences with, laughing himself to pieces. Gone, gone, gone. Like my email account.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

• This progression of the paragraphs contrasts how things are now from how they used to be. The descriptions of the “little things” Jean misses paint a picture of the impact of the word allotment.
• The first paragraph matter-of-factly introduces Jean’s current reality with the statement “This is how things are now” followed by a colon. With no build-up or mincing of words, the horrifying situation is laid out in one simple statement of fact: “We have allotments of one hundred words a day.” This is followed by a personal detail that illustrates just what these mean for a woman. Something as commonplace as a cookbook must be kept under lock and key.
• The second paragraph follows the same format to introduce a second list. This time she shares the things she misses in order to contrast her life before the allotment to her life now. Jean makes her current reality clear to us by telling us what it isn’t. The “little stuff” includes the tools for reading and writing—for consuming words—she was once surrounded by but are now forbidden. It is easy to recognize how quickly one could use up an allotment of 100 words.

Possibilities for Writers:

• Read this text as a writer to notice and name other interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader.
• Use this format to show a contrast between before and after. For example, writers might show the difference between elementary school and middle school or between Grade 9 to Grade 12 by using the same structure: “This is how things are now” and “It’s the little stuff I miss most.”
• Writers can describe what something is by describing what it is no longer, using specific images to illustrate the point.