Notable Novels In Verse

The following is a love note to all authors writing novels in verse and prose.

Dear Authors,

Thank you! On behalf of English teachers everywhere, I’d like you to know how important your novels in verse are. From realistic fiction to historical fiction these books welcome readers at every level. Lyrical text draws them in before they reach the bottom of the first page. With these novels, all students, including novice readers, can experience the pride of finishing a 200 or 300 page book in just a few days. And for instruction, teaching the literary elements and poetry has never been easier with such heartfelt prose. My students and I will cherish your work again and again, and we look forward to more novels in this format.

In deep appreciation and admiration,


Here are a few favorites that fly off the shelf. Click on each title to learn more about these amazing books and authors!

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell

Sweetgrass Basket

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out and Back Again

The Red Pencil by Andrea David Pinkney 

The Red Pencil

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter

The Crazy Man

 Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming


Head Over Heels for Teaching

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Last year, we launched this blog with a post about the Joys of Teaching! As we’ve looked back over our posts, it is still one of our favorites. We love teaching and cannot imagine our lives in different professions. Here’s our Top 10 List of what we love about teaching:

1) Driving into the school parking lot in the morning and being happy. Every time.

2) Conferencing with students. These one-on-one times are the ties that bond!

3) Getting so excited about tomorrow’s lesson that it’s hard to sleep at night. Yes, that still happens!

4) Birthday treats! Who doesn’t love a cupcake?

5) Sitting on the floor in the library with students, pouring over new books.

6) Writing celebrations where each student is proud to share.

7) The joy of snow days!  Not just for kids!

8) Morning meetings. Hearing about weekend activities and family excursions helps me know my students better and helps them conquer the “I don’t know what to write about” dilemma.

9) Reading aloud. Love the funny voices. Love the books! Love the expressions on my students’ faces as they listen. Love, love, love everything about it!

10) The chorus of “See you tomorrow’s” at the end of the day that symbolize the continuation of our journey together.

Here’s to 2015 and all new LOVES!

Even 15 Minutes a Day for Reading Makes a Difference

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.21.46 AMDo you have 40-60 minutes a day to teach reading, writing, and word work? I do. I am a middle school English teacher. When I started teaching middle school, I wondered how I was going to include independent reading time. The answer: 15 minutes of no-nonsense reading a day.

I had a student once ask me, “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me during this time?” At first I was horrified by this question. But then I understood the confusion. Independent reading is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel like school work. In fact, for many students, it doesn’t feel like work at all. But it is! It’s very important work, and it’s my job to help students understand that one way readers become better readers is by reading on their own- and reading a lot! So to this student, I replied, “Do you play soccer during soccer practice? Do you play the piano during your piano lesson? Do you do math problems during math class? Yes? In reading and writing class, you need to read and write. You’re becoming a stronger reader by reading. Look at all the books you’ve read this year. You’ve grown so much as a reader!”

How does 15 minutes of independent reading help grow readers and change my class?

1) 15 minutes is enough time to hook a reluctant reader! Simply starting a book can be the hook they need! So many books disappear from my shelves during reading time. As they begin new books, they take them home to read, and bring them back to continue reading the next day. 15 minutes can make all the difference in the life of a reluctant reader. They have eyes on print for an hour and fifteen minutes a week during my class.

2) Talk and Write! Independent reading time provides opportunities, after students read, for students to talk and write about their reading. Students are bursting to share what they’re reading, recommend books to others, write about their thinking, and share new words they’re coming across.

3) Saves time! Who would have ever thought that 15 minutes could save me class time? But it does! My students are relaxed and quiet after independent reading. They are settled down and ready for  learning. After reading, they listen more carefully to my minilessons and we move through material faster. I’ve actually gained back time!

4) Joy! My students love reading and they love coming to class. They read everything- graphic novels, picture books, poetry books, chapter books, and nonfiction. They’re happy. Reading brings so much joy to our classroom!

5) Growing readers. 15 minutes a day grows ALL readers- avid and reluctant. They’re moving forward as they practice reading. All the proof I need is in their reading assessments, where I see them move through the reading levels. I wish we could spend more time each day on independent reading. But even 15 minutes makes a difference!



Typically found wearing mismatched socks, Dana Johansen spends her time teaching fifth grade in Connecticut, negotiating with her yellow lab about doggy dinner options, and plopping down on the floor in bookstore aisles to find new reads. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop.


Independent Reading: Staple or Slide? (Part 2)

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Organizing the classroom, establishing reading rituals, and having a few “non-negotiables” in place are key to maximizing time for independent reading. Here’s how I make independent reading a staple in my classroom.

  • Ground rules. Some people call it DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) and others, like me, call it SQUIRT. I use the SQUIRT acronym because it is clear what the expectations are: Sustained Quiet, Uninterrupted, Independent, Reading Time. My students see SQUIRT on the agenda each day. Sometimes it happens right away, when they first arrive; other times it happens just before they leave. Either way, they know that bathroom/water breaks must happen before SQUIRT. I explain, “If we’re signing out for water, are you reading?” The only exception to this is an emergency, and of course, these sometimes happen. But a revolving door and chairs scraping against the floor when students get up and down breaks our “bubble.” My students can read anywhere in the room they’d like. But once they make a decision, they must stick with that location. Again, constant movement distracts readers and prevents them from getting into the zone.
  • Books on deck. All of my students keep their SQUIRT books in a designated large bin in the classroom. On the inside cover of each book is a post-it with the student’s name in case it should “wander.” When it’s time for SQUIRT, no one needs to “go looking” for their book because it’s always “on deck.” Also, as students near the end of their book, they are reminded to locate the next book they’d like to read and to place it “on deck.” Again, I remind them, “If you’re looking for a book during SQUIRT, are you reading?” A seamless transition to SQUIRT helps us to maximize our reading minutes. Reading folders that include multiple copies of reading logs are kept in numerical order in the front of my classroom. Students grab their folders and their books as soon as they enter the classroom each day in anticipation of SQUIRT; so when it’s time, they’re ready!
  • Schedule. If independent reading time is the first thing to slide off of your schedule due to time constraints, make it the first part of the day. I see my 6th graders each day for 80 minutes, so I’m able to provide 30 minutes for SQUIRT. However, like all teachers, I sometimes find myself pinched for time. After allowing SQUIRT to slide off of my schedule too many times during the first four months of the school year, my New Year’s resolution was to make it first on the agenda. During this time, I’m either conferencing with students or reading as well. When I work with teachers, I remind them about how smart students are. If we’re grading papers or working on the computer during independent reading time, we are letting our students know that independent reading is not really that important; it’s “busy work ” so that the teacher has time to do something else. Independent reading time is also time for me to model being a reader. My students need to see me wrapped up in a great book, too. They want to know what I’m reading and why I love it.

As teachers, we hold a powerful platform. Making independent reading sacred is one of the most important things a teacher can do. This time is valuable. Students need to and want to read. Yes, even struggling readers want to read and we can make this happen for them by being relentless about matching them to books they are excited about reading.

Independent Reading: Staple or Slide? (Part 1)

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Is independent reading time a staple in your classroom? Or, is it the first thing that slides off the schedule when you realize you’re running out of time? It can be challenging to prevent the latter from happening for two main reasons: time and understanding the value of independent reading.

I’ve worked with many teachers and administrators who question: “Since time is already limited, why should teachers make space for this in class? Can’t students do this at home? And what about those students who aren’t really reading?” “Isn’t this just a waste of time?” Here’s how I respond to these questions:

  • Research. When I work with teachers who are reluctant to provide independent reading time in their classrooms because of unsupportive administrators, I arm them with the work of educational researchers. Extensive reading is critical! Richard L. Allington, PhD [1] has found that students, particularly struggling readers, need to read 90 minutes each day in order to stay on grade level. This statistic is often surprising to many teachers and causes them to say, “There’s no way I can do this.” The good news is no one teacher has to. All of the reading students do over the course of the day counts. So if each teacher makes time for students to read across the content areas, it all adds up!
  • Opportunity & Access. Many students are overscheduled with activities, making it difficult for them to have large chunks of time to read. Further, struggling readers can be reluctant readers. Securing time in class for reading means teachers can monitor and encourage all of their readers. This means providing them with the guided instruction they need and then asking them to go off and practice this instruction with a great book. Finally, many classrooms are living libraries laden with books on shelves, baskets, and bins. As the reading expert in the room, it’s here where teachers can match students with books that they may not have access to outside of the classroom.
  • Environment. There’s nothing more motivating and powerful than being in a classroom with 25 students who are locked in to their books. When students are in the reading zone, it’s like a bubble has dropped over the classroom and you really could hear a pin drop. They are “really reading” and they love it! Providing them with time to discuss what they’ve read fans the excitement and strengthens comprehension.

Visit the LitLearnAct blog tomorrow when I share how I manage time for independent reading in my classroom each day.

[1] Dr. Richard L. Allington is the author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs

Revision Toolkit- “The Sledgehammer”

It cannot be said enough how much Sonja and I admire the work of Georgia Heard. Everything she writes has practical strategies that work! Her book, The Revision Toolbox, just came out with a second edition, and it’s fabulous! If you’re like me, then revision is the part of the writing process that you cringe at. It’s easy to come up with the teaching topics: too much dialogue, not enough elaboration, lack of focus, no setting, endings that feel unresolved or end too quickly. Am I right? But then you have to decide how to teach into these issues and it just feels overwhelming.

I think it is hard to teach revision because it is not concrete. Students have to make choices about what to add, what to change, and what to remove. Revision can be frustrating for them because it’s not always easy to RE-vision their writing.

Teaching revision is teaching a critical-thinking process. It’s comprised of noticings, choices, and reflection.

One of the many ways, I try to make teaching revision concrete is with tools. Just like Georgia Heard writes, writers have tools that they use when approaching revising their pieces. One tool that my students and I came up with is the sledgehammer. Not only do students think the name and image are humorous, but they like the idea of a powerful, fearless tool that can bravely knock away unnecessary and unfocused writing. This is also a helpful way to guide my minilessons about revision in every unit.

I say, “Today we’re going to be breaking out the sledgehammer again. Let’s think about what we might notice in our writing and why we might choose to remove it. Then we’ll reflect by rereading our piece to see if the sledgehammer helped. Let’s practice on a sample piece.”

I often need to remind students to “Be Brave!” and “Make tough choices!” My hope is that they grow comfortable removing some of their writing. Always save those drafts though! Never throw writing away!

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Word Work Wednesday- Noun or Verb?

If you’re like me and only have 5-7 mins a day for word work, then you’re constantly looking for lessons that pack the most powerful punches. This lesson does just that! It doubles vocabulary instruction with grammar. Pow!

The English language is fickle. We have so many meanings for words. Table can be a noun (as in the piece of furniture) or it can be a verb (as in saving something for a later time.) Most students are familiar with the noun, but are they familiar with the verb? Studying words that can be both nouns and verbs can be fun!

Nouns & Verbs:

ski                              bargain                         hunt

chair                          shop                               bump

ruin                           fly                                   grimace

cloud                         joke                                milk

One of the hardest components of teaching vocabulary is helping students learn the many meanings of words. I like to begin here- with nouns and verbs. These words allow for great entry-point conversations about words because students are usually familiar with at least one meaning. Students have a lot of fun creating sentences that include both forms of the word.

“We tabled the discussion about the new dining room table for the night.”

As the year goes on, I add more layers. We look at words that are nouns, verbs, and adjectives (such as the word light.)

For extra fun, ask your students to get really creative and make a case for sentences or word combinations where “table” acts as an adjective? (table-top counter, table lamp, table hockey?) Where it can get really interesting is when students try adding suffixes to table to make it into an adjective (tablific? or tablesque?) You may be surprised by what they create. Here is Shelby’s sentence:

“She looked at the towering building with its black table roof.”

You can see here that Shelby used the word “table” creatively to  create an interesting image in her reader’s mind. This quick and fun word work activity can pack a powerful punch in less than 5-7 minutes. Enjoy!

2015 ALA Awards!

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What I love so much about the ALA Awards is seeing the community of writers, illustrators, librarians, and teachers gather together to honor books. What an incredible celebration! And I know that I speak for so many educators when I say how privileged and fortunate we are to work in schools with librarians who are so incredibly knowledgeable and care so much about getting books into the hands of students. A heartfelt THANK YOU to all librarians! You make our jobs as reading teachers that much easier and joyful.

I can’t wait to show parts of the awards ceremony to my 5’s! They have read so many titles that were honored at today’s ceremony.

Some great pre-award reading activities included: Many read alouds, a mock-Newbery club, and a reading-challenge list. Favorite books included: El Deafo, Brown Girl Dreaming, Rain Reign, Greenglass House, Snicker of Magic, and The Night Gardner.

Post-award reading activities will include: Add books to our “Reading Wish Lists,” read some new read alouds that we haven’t read (I’ve been on Amazon and it looks like a bunch are back ordered. Arg!), begin reading for on our class favorites for the year (Sweet 16?), and write letters and tweets to authors celebrating their books.

The ALA Awards ceremony was so exciting! If you missed the ALA Award ceremony, here is the link to the video:

A link to all the winners are here: