Category Archives: Reading


Save Reading, Save the Country

This post is written by member Julia Franks. 

One of my students, a high school senior on his way to Georgia Tech, told me he loved to read as a child and then, as a teenager, began to hate it. He blamed school, and the way his teachers “overanalyzed” literature. (Just to remind you: it’s not unusual for a class to read Hamlet, a four-hour play, and then spend thirty hours talking and writing about it.) Other disaffected readers blame schools’ “terrible books,” including one Stanford graduate who recalls the exact book that made him hate fiction—forever: A Tale of Two Cities.

Some give up sooner. Some have intuited that it’s not the actual reading of Dickens that matters to their grades, but rather familiarity with Dickens’s major themes. And it’s so very tempting to get that information online rather than spending twelve hours reading a book and then constructing your own meaning from it.

We know that non-readers don’t develop the same mental muscles, but there are other reasons why reading isn’t just for the nerds of the world. Our republic provides free education to its citizenry because an informed and intelligent electorate is a public good. Part of getting educated is experiencing other people’s stories. I’m not a Christian, but I identified strongly with the Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Likewise, I aspired to Pi Patel’s transcendent view of suffering in Life of Pi and was moved by Mark Beaver’s conflicted adolescent feelings about Jesus in Suburban Gospel. Because of those books, I have some tiny understanding of the very many ways there are of being a Christian. I could draw similar parallels about being a combat soldier or about being Muslim. By immersing myself in someone else’s story, I’m inhabiting his or her life a little. I’m practicing a different vantage point.

One night last summer, below a dingy Atlanta underpass, a police car pulled in front of mine and stopped, the blue lights flashing into the tunnel. An officer sprang from the car and ran forward into the blackness. Then: sounds of wrestling, moaning, a large soft mass being slammed against the car, the voice of the officer saying, “Stop moving.” He said it four times, each time sounding more as if he were begging. Moments later a tall wiry man sprinted toward my car, blood pouring from a head wound, his eyes dazed with either terror or drugs. The police officer, who was stockier and younger, tackled him, and they both slammed onto the pavement, not five feet from where I sat. The officer wrested the other man’s arms behind him and closed the handcuffs. Then he met my eye for a long moment, his gaze full of uncertainty. He looked Filipino. The man in the cuffs was White.

At first, I tried to square this incident with one of our national narratives, trying to shape my own experience to fit a story I’d already heard. Was it the brutality story? The resisting-arrest story? Racism? Which one was the bad guy?

But, life is not an action movie or a video game where good guys fight evil. There are many other stories out there. And if you’re a reader, you remember Malcolm X’s accounts of police profiling in The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the brutality in American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. But here’s the thing: sitting right there in your brain next to those stories are also Edward Conlon’s accounts of NYPD responding to the events of September 11 and Trudy Nan Boyce’s novels of a female officer navigating complicated relationships in the neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta. If you’re a reader, you have a lot more practice holding all those conflicting stories in your imagination at one time. And perhaps you’re more prepared to see nuance.

Recent data show that readers are also better at controlling their own stories, which is an integral part of constructing identity and has given rise to an entire field called bibliotherapy. Think about it. Stories are the way we make meaning. Take any personal crisis you’ve ever weathered, even something as prosaic as a break-up. When it was all over, you built a narrative around it: “First he did this, then I did that.” Cause, effect, cause, effect. You needed that narrative in order to feel as if you understood what had happened—in order to move on.

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

In my own classroom, I wanted a change, so one spring I offered my AP students a choice. They could read the books on the syllabus, or they could set up reading groups and read twice as many books selected from a list of some 300 great titles. We voted. Forty-nine students out of forty-nine chose to read twice as many books. And—surprise!—they chose door-stoppers they’d long wanted to read (Lord of the Rings! The Fountainhead!) and alternated them with shorter reads (The Road, The Bell Jar, Me Before You). By May, every kid in the class, with one exception, had read twice as many pages as I’d originally planned, and many had read four or five times as  much.

At the end of the year, my seniors’ grades on the national exam were exactly on par with the other AP students in the school. Research data on choice reading, particularly those from linguist Stephen D. Krashen, support this anecdotal evidence.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the classics or the communal reading experience. But kids who have personal reading habits are far more likely to broaden their tastes than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to be reading ten years after graduation.

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

’Tis a far, far better thing they do.

Julia Franks is a former teacher and an award-winning novelist (Over the Plain Houses from Hub City Press). She now runs a Web application that helps schools track independent reading from grade to grade ( 

Note: Did you find this post interesting? You may like to read this post by Hannah Sislo whose college project focused on ways teachers could include reading choice in the classroom.


Teaching News Bias without Being Biased

This is a guest post by Katelynn Giordano. 

For language arts teachers, the general public’s growing inability to critically analyze media, especially news media, can be disheartening. We are in the business of teaching our students to become critical thinkers, especially when reading and responding to content. Due to the increase in “fake news” and the prevalence of news on social media, we are living in a society where many people seek out ways to confirm their own biases rather than get factual information. As someone who teaches critical literacy, I find it simple to identify news that is biased or unrealistically presented. However, I have been reminded time and again in the past months that this is just not the case for everyone. People must learn, as with everything else, how to look at any piece of writing, any video, any news story and gauge its usefulness, bias, and truthfulness.

It may seem like a no-brainer to start teaching our students how to analyze news sources in our language arts classrooms. This skill falls perfectly within most curricula, as it supports the development of critical literacy and analytical thinking. It aligns with the skill of recognizing credible resources when doing research. However, when considering how I would accomplish teaching students how to recognize news biases, I struggled with how to view them in a productive and objective way. And, knowing how much pushback I would get if any “right” or “left” news sources were identified as such, I found myself shying away from teaching a relevant, important topic.

As a sixth-grade teacher, I have a group of students who are at a pivotal age. They are new to our middle school, they are just starting to become more independent, and many of them are active on different forms of social media. At the same time, these students are still very involved with their families, and many are not at a place where they can approach objective thinking with maturity or full understanding. Even so, I wanted to create an activity that would at least start my students on a consideration of news bias, beginning the cultivation of future citizens who have some background with the concept of analyzing news sources.

My determination has resulted in an activity that allows students to analyze different news sources without identifying them as biased toward the left or the right, instead viewing them as pieces of nonfiction writing. With the recent push from the Common Core State Standards to read and comprehend nonfiction, as well as every educator’s responsibility to help students develop as critical thinkers, this activity meets the needs of my students and allows me to foster a skill that I find to be lacking in our society. It can be modified to fit most classes, and it can be kept current by using up-to-date news resources and events.

First, we have to check our own biases at the door. I know that should go without saying, but sometimes it’s best to state the obvious. As educators, many of us feel strongly about our current political climate, so it’s critical when teaching our students to analyze news stories for bias and truthfulness that we give them the room to think on their own–without our influence.

Choose a current event to have students consider. Using a resource that helps identify which sources are more liberal, which are more conservative, and which are typically unbiased (like this one), choose news articles on the same event that fall within one of the three categories. In other words, choose one resource that is liberal, one that is conservative, and one that is neutral that have all reported on the same current event. You can modify this activity by allowing students to choose their own current event and then choose articles from three sources that you have already divided into unnamed categories. This may increase student autonomy and add a research aspect to the activity.

 For example:

Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below: Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below: Choose one article on your chosen event from the sources below:
____ BBC

____ NPR

____ Associated Press

____ The Washington Post

____ The Economist

____ The Wall Street Journal

____ The Hill

____ The Fiscal Times

____ The Atlantic

____ The Huffington Post

____ The New York Times

____ CNN

Give students guidelines for considering current events from multiple sources. Allow them time to read and annotate each of the three sources. Their natural curiosity and the analytical skills that have been fostered in the classroom will begin to take over. When this activity is approached from a critical thinking or close reading perspective, students will naturally employ the skills they have mastered in those areas. Rather than reading to learn about the current event itself (which is only a small part of this!), they will be considering how the information is written, the point of view and purpose of the author, and why the information is presented the way it is. I give students a handout with questions that challenge them to reflect on how reputable the source is. Some questions include: Which source do you feel best presented the facts about the event? Did any source seem as though it was attempting to change the reader’s mind? Did any source share a direct opinion? Were any sources contradicting one another? When reading about current events, do you think it would be helpful to read about the same event from multiple sources as we did today? Why or why not?

Debrief and allow students to respond to or comment on what they noticed. This debrief can be done on the same day directly following the analysis activity, or it can be done the following day. This debrief is where students will be discussing their findings, so it is best to allow plenty of time for these conversations to continue after they’ve had the opportunity to critically analyze the sources provided. This debrief can also be done after students have crafted a written response, depending on your own preference and the time available. Because of my increased focus on writing this year, I will be having my students respond to the reflection questions and then use the final two questions about the consideration of multiple sources as a persuasive writing prompt. The final part of this activity is to give students time to share their reflections or writing with the class. The whole-class discussion is where their ideas can flow and students can begin to have critical conversations about the observations they made in the analysis of several news sources. Allow the discussion to evolve as your students share their thoughts, and give your students room to respond to the thinking of their peers. Coach them on agreeing or disagreeing respectfully and on supporting their rebuttals or verifications with evidence from a source. After all, as language arts teachers, we teach them to use evidence from the text in any response.

The power of this activity, and in building a critically literate society, comes from the conversations. Our students are the future. They are learning each day to become the citizens they will ultimately be. I plan to do everything I can to facilitate these conversations and to help my students analyze and question the world around them. Join me, won’t you?

 Katelynn Giordano is a grade 6 language arts teacher in Illinois. She is a graduate student, book nerd, writer, and coffee enthusiast. Her passion is inspiring others to find a love and appreciation for education.


What Happened in Your State This May?

This past month, seven policy analysts published reports about what occurred in the following states: Arkansas, Idaho, New York, New Mexico, Ohio and Wyoming.

Higher Education

Idaho: In 60×20 in Idaho: New Community College and Update on Complete College Idaho, Karen Uehling writes that English “remedial” writing courses were “re-conceived as co-requisite courses” rather than as non-credit, pre-composition level classes. Idaho also approved a new community college.

New Mexico: Erin O’Neill describes the New Mexico Budget Standoff on Higher Ed Funding between Governor Susana Martinez and the legislature. Because the governor vetoed the legislature’s tax increases and “in effect defunded higher education,” the New York State Supreme Court heard oral arguments on May 15 to determine whether Governor Martinez overstepped the power of her office.


Arkansas: In Charter School Expansion Proposed, Donna Wake notes that ten more charters were proposed, coinciding with the proposed closing of three schools. Donna also noted that a Walton-controlled entity bought one elementary school and intends to open a charter school.

Idaho: Darlene Dyer reports that Select Idaho K-3 Students Will Take New Reading Test that will “provide teachers … with a better understanding of student reading skills.”

New York: Derek Kulnis files three reports:

Ohio: Robin Holland describes Ohio House Bills 176 and 181-Standards, Testing, and Teacher Evaluation, introduced to eliminate Ohio’s Learning Standards based on the Common Core and implement a new set of standards and assessments.

Wyoming: In Wyoming Enacts “Indian Education for All” Legislation, Tiffany Rehbein shares that Governor Matt Mead signed House Bill 76 requiring all students in Wyoming to learn about the American Indian tribes of the region. Tiffany noted that this “decision aligns with NCTE’s long-standing Guideline on Non-White Minorities in English and Language Arts Materials (1978).

Giving Students a Place to Choose

harrypotterlibraryNo two ways about it—students need access to books. And to be the best readers, they need to choose the books they want to read.

What better place to find books than libraries—those magical places in communities, schools, and classrooms? Imagine the library in The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotton Books) or in Jasper Fforde’s second Thursday Next mystery, Lost in a Good Book, Hogwart’s Library or your local book repository!

In 1987 NCTE passed the Resolution on Improving Library Support in the Schools,“urging legislators and school officials to provide funding for credentialed librarians in every elementary and secondary school.”

The Council followed up with the Resolution on Supporting School and Community Libraries
in 2005.

“Resource-rich school libraries and credentialed school librarians play key roles in promoting information literacy. They help students acquire critical thinking skills and increase their global awareness. Educational research demonstrates that the services of professional school librarians, well-funded collections, and rich digital resources enhance student achievement. These research studies show that, when classroom teachers collaborate with full-time, credentialed school librarians to design, implement, and assess instruction, student achievement increases significantly…”

And, the just- published Statement on Classroom Libraries recognizes

“the specific educational benefits of classroom libraries to students because they
• motivate students by encouraging voluntary and recreational reading
• help young people develop an extensive array of literacy strategies and skills
• provide access to a wide range of reading materials that reflect abilities and interests
• enhance opportunities for both assigned and casual reading
• provide choice in self-selecting reading materials for self-engagement
• strengthen and encourage authentic literate exchanges among young people and adolescents
• provide access to digitized reading materials that may help to foster the development of technological literacy skills
• facilitate opportunities to validate and promote the acceptance and inclusion of diverse students’ identities and experiences
• create opportunities to cultivate an informed citizenry”

Libraries of all sorts give your students the chance to get the book.

Reading List for Participatory Citizenship

Reading List for Summer in Participatory Citizenship

The following post was written by Pam Allyn and is part of an ongoing monthly series from the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

Reading is one of the best ways for children to step outside of their own lives and gain perspective on the world. An important aspect of participatory citizenship is an openness to other people’s experiences that are different from our own. Books are an important portal into the experiences of others; reading is proven to make people more empathetic. Empathy is an important part of participatory citizenship: participation in society and community, fueled by mutual respect for others. Books can help kids gain awareness of past and present global issues, which can lead to more direct and effective participatory citizenship. Below is a short summer reading list, including different books for all ages, to encourage and foster global participatory citizenship. After each book is a discussion or activity prompt to encourage deeper thinking and action.

lilahs-lunchboxLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story
by Reem Faruqi K-3

This is a story about a girl who moves from Abu Dhabi to the U.S. It’s not only her first year in a new school, but also her first year fasting for Ramadan. This book addresses Lailah’s mixed feelings about being a new student who practices a religion different than most of her peers. The takeaway message from this book about participatory citizenship is the way in which sharing cultures allows Lailah and the other characters in the book to connect with each other and personally grow. This book is a great read because every child will relate to the themes: feeling out of place, growing up, and the hope that others will understand you. The book demonstrates how sharing your own culture, as well as expressing openness to the cultures of others, leads to joy, harmony, peace, and friendship.

Prompt: Think of something about yourself that your classmates may not know about you and write it on a sheet of paper. Trade papers with a partner and each person illustrates what they learned about their classmate.

fourfeettwosandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed 1-5

This book is a great way to introduce children to the realities of living in a refugee camp, why people are refugees, and then relate it to their own lives. A ten year old girl named Lina ends up sharing a pair of sandals with a girl named Feroza, since there are not enough sandals for everyone. These two characters experience the hardships of life in a refugee camp: waiting on long lines for water, the hard journey that brought them there, the fear for their futures, no access to education, among other obstacles. This is a book that will get children thinking about the hardships faced by people in other parts of the world.

Prompt: The girls in this book are friends who care about each other. What are some things we already do for our friends to show them we care? What are things we can do in the future?

laststopLast Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña K-2

A book about a boy and his grandmother and their Sunday afternoon routine, Last Stop on Market Street will touch the hearts of children and adults alike. It is also a quiet call to action, inspiring us to be better people, and to do good for others, no matter how much or how little we ourselves have. In the book, CJ and his nana wait for the bus after church, and CJ is curious about his surroundings and his life. The final
stop for the pair is a soup kitchen. Although CJ and nana don’t have as much as some others, volunteering at the soup kitchen is still a priority for CJ and nana. This book will inspire kids to volunteer, and beyond volunteering, teaches all of us how to practice appreciation and gratitude in our everyday lives. Last Stop on Market Street won the 2016 Newberry Medal, was a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.

Prompt: Write a list of things we are grateful for in our life. Next, choose one thing on that list and write down how we can express our gratitude. For example, telling our family members we love them, or, sharing our favorite music with a classmate.

henrysfreedomboxHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad
by Ellen Levine Gr 2-5

A 2008 Caldecott Honor Book, Henry’s Freedom Box is an important historical picture book. A book about one slave’s remarkable escape from slavery to freedom, Henry’s Freedom Box addresses the hardships of life as a slave and the dehumanization of slavery. Henry is taken from his mother as a child and later separated from his wife and child. This book successfully conveys the pain of Henry’s life and why he risked his life for freedom. This is a great story that can be used to teach children about U.S. history, slavery, and the repercussions that continue to influence our country to this day.

Prompt: How would you feel if you could no longer be with your family? What inspires you about Henry and the people who help him along the way?

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition)
by Malala Yousafzai, with Patricia McCormick Gr 6 and up

The young readers edition of Malala Yousafzai’s memoir is a must-read for all kids Grade 6 and up. Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban because she and her father advocated for girls’ education in Pakistan. Her memoir not only provides a historical background to the Taliban’s control of her hometown, but also her ongoing fight for education. Yousafzai–a Nobel Peace Prize Winner–is an inspiring figure because she advocates for human rights and education for all. Readers of this moving memoir will learn about middle-eastern politics, what it’s like to live in other parts of the world, and Yousafzai’s social activism. This book is both a call to action and an inspirational account of a young person who works tirelessly for others.

Prompt: Check out Malala Yousafzai’s organization and its tips on how to get involved in the fight for women’s education: hosting a film screening and writing letters to congress are just a couple suggestions.

hateugiveThe Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas Gr 8 and up

This novel is an important read for teens and adults alike. The protagonist, Starr, witnesses the shooting of her friend by a police officer, changing her life forever. Realistically capturing the repercussions of the event, as well as the political and cultural environment of the moment, this book is about far more than one girl’s experience of a tragic event. With its fierce social commentary on race, power, and police brutality in America, The Hate U Give is a textured, profound story of how past and present racism and violence impact lives. Through this perspective, readers will gain awareness about the necessity and importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Prompt: Check out the Black Lives Matter website and see how you can get involved. For something creative, make posters that you would bring to a Black Lives Matter march.

indarknessIn Darkness
by Nick Lake Gr 8 and up

Merging the past and present, In Darkness is a vivid account of one boy’s struggle in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that shook–literally and figuratively–Haiti. Opening as the earthquake hits, the main character “Shorty” nearly dies. Just a teenager, Shorty suddenly feels the presence of the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the journey of the book unfolds as the past and present influence each other through the lives of these two lives. Readers will learn about the Haitian Revolution, slavery, and the harsh historical realities of colonization, slavery, and natural disasters that led to Shorty’s life in the slums of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Prompt: Research and learn about life in Haiti after the earthquake and the aid responses. Consider how the history of Haiti continues to influence the country to this day.

marchtrilogyMarch Trilogy
by John Lewis, co-written by Andrew Aydin Gr 7 and up

These graphic novels are written by Congressman John Lewis. Together, they comprise the story of Lewis’ life, focusing on his fight for civil rights, beginning with his childhood in rural Alabama. The books continue through his fight for justice through nonviolent protest and the others who dedicated their lives to equality. Culminating in a scene where Lewis receives a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, this memoir is a piercing reminder of how much work there is still to do. With an informative, inspiring story such as this one, young people will have the tools necessary to continue Lewis’ mission. The third book in the trilogy won this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature.

Prompt: Think of a cause you are passionate about. If you were to plan a nonviolent protest to make change in the world, what would you do?