Making Teacher-to-Student Connections with YA Lit

I’ve never been one with pop culture, but for most of my teaching career, I was young enough to fake it. Not anymore.  Have you seen that some ecard that says “I’m 40, but still feel like I’m 20 until I hang out with some 20 year olds then I’m like, no, never mind, I’m 40”?  That’s me…except the divide at school is stretching even farther as I slide toward 50 and my students are still in their teens. As Matthew McConaughey’s character said in Dazed and Confused, “I get older; they stay the same age.” (How’s that for some dated pop-culture?)

So, I was pretty stumped when this week’s #EduBlogsClub prompt arrived in my email: “Write a post about using popular culture in the classroom.”  I don’t. I can’t.

Then, I got an email notification that one of my wait-listed books from the public library was available. That night, I started reading Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart. A YouTuber. When I got to the chapter in which she described the eight different types of content (Tags, Challenges, Vlogs, etc.) on YouTube, I realized I was learning some pop culture. The lightbulb came on:

Young Adult Literature = Pop Culture

For eleven years as a reading teacher, I read YA books every day. I learned early on that kids in my reading class wanted edgy books, book without boring parts, and books with teen characters facing issues similar to those they face: finding-out-who-they-are-and-who-loves-them. I read books I never would have chosen on my own–vampire stories, dystopian science-fiction, fantasy–and fully enjoyed them: both for the stories themselves and the connections they provided with my students.

As a literacy coach, though, my reading is more varied. My one pop-culture connection with students has taken the backseat to professional books and my own personal reading interests–like the nonfiction, psychology/business books that I was binging on last year. My office is in the school media center; I walk through displays of YA books every day, usually passing right by them because I’ve got “more important” books to read.


Thankfully, I follow some school librarians on Twitter who have renewed my interest in YA lit.  Last month, Jane Lofton tweeted about The Hub 2017 Reading Challenge.  The challenge seeks to inspire librarians and YA enthusiasts to read current award winning YA lit. Participants who read (or listen to) at least 25 books before June 22 of this year will be entered into a drawing to win a collection of award-winning YA books.

I started with an easy one–rereading Persepolis, a graphic autobiography by Marjane Satrapi because I had the “popular paperback” in my own library. It’s been years since I read it, and, as I’m preparing to teach I am Malala with a 10th grade teacher, I can see that I may be able to recommend it to students who want to know more about fundamentalism in the Middle East.

I’m halfway through Buffering (an Alex award winner) now and this is one of those that I never would have chosen on my own–but I am thoroughly enjoying. I enjoy Hart’s sense of humor and honesty. The stories of her childhood remind me a little of The Glass Castle and her resilience will be inspiring for students. (The Alex Awards are one of my favorite categories–adult books that appeal to teen readers. I work with a lot of 11th and 12th grade students who think they are too old for YA lit, so these books that deal with more mature topics are intriguing to the older students.)

Yesterday afternoon, I picked up The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge–an Amelia Bloomer Top Ten book. My first in this category of YA feminist literature. I’ll be starting it after I finish Buffering tonight. I’ll let you know what I think!

I may be a few decades removed from the drama of young adulthood, but that’s part of the appeal of YA lit–it reminds us of what it feels like to fall in or out of love for the first time, of trying to figure out who we are or where we belong. Reconnecting with those timeless themes in these compelling stories can help us connect with our students–even if we don’t know any of this year’s Best New Artist nominees.

Join me in completing The 2017 Hub Reading Challenge!  Check out the booklist and sign up here.

There was another time in my coaching career where I started to lose touch with YA lit; The Book Whisperer was my salvation that time. If you don’t know Donalyn Miller and you’re looking to further your connection with students through YA lit, check her out!

20 Things for Students to Do with Informational Text

The most common request I have received this year as a literacy coach is to cover a teacher’s class. Just kidding. That’s the second-most common request.  

Seriously, the practice that most of the teachers at my school seek my help with is questioning–specifically, how to write questions for the informational text they are using in their classrooms. We’ve been trying to get content-area teachers to embrace authentic (non-textbook) readings in their classrooms for years. We’re there. Many have their own Newsela or Listenwise accounts, they watch Ted Talks in class, and they share news articles or blogs they have come across in their own real-world reading with their students.

Now, though, the issue has become what to do with the texts. The teachers want to write questions to check whether or not the students are reading, but they feel the pressure to write quality questions to meet the demands of our district’s evaluation system. They come to me seeking guidance: “Do you have any lists of question stems?” “What are higher order questions?”

In response, I usually give them copies of resources I do have. But I also ask them questions: “Why do you need to do all this work?” “What is the goal of the lesson?” “Why not let the kids write the questions?” “Have you tried any other approaches?”  The consensus is that the kids will not do the reading if they don’t have questions to answer.  

Have you ever watched a high school kid read an article with questions attached?  Rather than reading, students treat the article like a Where’s Waldo? Puzzle–they skim and scan, searching for Waldo (the answer) without paying any attention to the rest of the picture (article).

To provide options that may be less time consuming for teachers and more meaningful for students, I started compiling a list of activities that could take the place of “read and answer the questions.” Finally, with the prompting of the #EduBlogsClub, I finished my list this week!


So, if you’re tired of agonizing over questions that students don’t really answer, consider one of these low-prep options that encourage students to really read the article.  You can download both a printable color and black and white version of the graphic here. (They print on legal-size paper.) And, for a little more information about each strategy, read on…

  1. Analyze Word Choice. Why did the author use this word instead of that one? Recognizing that connotation affects meaning and that authors may be using certain words or phrases to achieve an effect is a key component of becoming a critical reader.
  2. Compare and Contrast. Ask students to compare the way the information is presented in the article to the presentation in your textbook or in another article or video. What details were emphasized in one but glossed over in another? How did one better help them to understand the material?
  3. Dig Deeper. If you have access to computers or want to let the students use their own devices, teach them to use your library’s periodical database to do further research. Ask them to find a related article and then explain how it adds to their understanding of the concept. (Added bonus: the students may find articles you can use with future classes!)
  4. Draw a Picture. Allowing students the opportunity to represent the text visually will help them remember the text. Creating symbolic representations or reformulating information in a graph or chart takes this to an ever deeper level.
  5. Evaluate Credibility. It is important for students to learn to question the credibility of “experts” cited in the text. Are the author’s sources qualified to make the assertions they make? Has the author addressed the opposition?
  6. Frayer Models provide students the opportunity to deepen their understanding of key concepts and vocabulary. Charting examples and nonexamples, listing characteristics, and drawing a picture clarifies the concept.
  7. Identify the Most Important Word. This is a lot harder than it seems and provides a fantastic opportunity for discussion as students defend their choices.
  8. Listen. Sometimes the best way to get kids to read is to read to them. You don’t have to read the whole article–reading the first couple of paragraphs aloud provides context and builds intrigue. Once you’ve got them hooked, turn them loose to read the rest on their own.
  9. Make Connections. When students connect new knowledge to previously learned material, they are more likely to remember it. Text-to-Self, Text-to-Text, and Text-to-World connections all help students process their understanding.
  10. Questioning the author’s reasoning and conclusions teaches students to be critical readers. Do the facts add up? How does this information support or contradict what we’ve already learned?
  11. The Reporter’s Questions. Ask students to answer these six questions focusing on the main idea of the article. Encourage them to synthesize all of the answers into a sentence or two to summarize the article.
  12. Separating important and interesting information helps students to differentiate between the key ideas and the less significant details.
  13. Set a Purpose. When we decide to read an article, we (perhaps unconsciously) have already thought about why it’s worth our time to read it–we know what we’ll get out of it based on our preview of the title, author, introduction, graphics, and other text features. Teaching kids to do the same and then to explain how they think this article will connect with course content will help them retain the information.
  14. Sticky notes allow students to mark the text without actually writing on the text. Cutting larger sticky notes into smaller sizes saves money and teaches students to be concise!
  15. Take a Stand. Asking students to find an assertion that they agree or disagree with in the article and then explain why allows them to practice justifying arguments with evidence (from this text or beyond).
  16. Take a Walk in Their Shoes. Allowing students to put themselves in the position of the subject of an article helps them widen their perspective and build empathy. By writing a letter or journal entry, students can really think about what the subject of the article was feeling and why they responded the way they did.
  17. Thinking Maps help students understand causes and effects, chronology, and other text structures. Understanding how an author has organized the information in an article helps students see connections between main ideas and details.
  18. What Happens Next? Ask students to make predictions about the outcome of a situation or what they feel should happen next. If the subject is a current event, revisit the topic as it unfolds so students can assess the validity of their predictions.
  19. What’s Missing? Identifying confusing sections of the text and thinking about the information that would make it more clear helps students to become better readers–and writers!
  20. Just Read It! Sometimes the most meaningful reading experiences are those that are just about the reading. If you’ve chosen a high-quality text, letting kids just read it and process it on their own may be a refreshing change.  

I hope you’ll give one of these ideas a try the next time you’re agonizing over writing questions for an article. If you have any questions about the strategies, please post them in the comments below!

Quick & Easy Reading Checks

“It will be different this time,” we tell ourselves each time we begin a new novel.  No matter how many times we’ve been there before, we go in with a sense of optimism.  We believe that our choice will finally hook the students; they’ll want to read this one.  We read the first three chapters in class, get to that point where they have to know what happens next, and then turn them loose to devour the next two chapters for homework.

10 Reading Checks

And then they don’t do it.

I know I’m not alone when I say that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of teaching English.  Not only have the students cheated themselves out of the opportunity to read a good book, but they’ve thrown our discussion, activity, or lesson completely off track.  How can we talk about this or do that if they haven’t done the reading?

Sadly, I have not discovered a solution.  I do have some band-aids—temporary fixes that might heal the problem for the day, and unlike the standard five-question quiz, these techniques have potential to inspire interest in the reading  so that students will get on board for the rest of the book.

Here are 10 mostly low-prep options to credit those who did the reading and give the others some insight into what they missed.  Give one a try the next time you see students hurriedly flipping through the pages or hear the hushed questions, “Did you read?”  “What happened?”

  • SparkNotes Summary: Want to see who is reading the book as opposed to the SparkNotes?  I learned this amazing idea from Carol Jago at a district inservice:  Project the chapter summary from SparkNotes on your screen and ask the students to read the summary and identify three things that happened in the chapter which are not included in the summary.  Not only will this identify those who did read, it will provide those who didn’t even read the SparkNotes some background so they won’t be completely lost in the discussion.


  • Feeling Response: After a particularly emotional chapter, list four or five “feeling” adjectives on the board (angry, annoyed, outraged, exasperated) and ask the students to choose one (or come up with a better one on their own) that expresses their feelings toward the chapter/character/author. Ask them to explain—in detail—why they feel this way.  After collecting the papers, you can ask students to share their responses, sparking a more thoughtful conversation about the events in the chapter than a standard summary.


  • Essential Question: You chose the book to connect to the Essential Question. Why write new questions?  Direct students back to your essential question and ask them to make connections (or predictions) based on last night’s homework.  See if they’re heading in the right direction and redirect as needed.


  • Quotable Quote: Choose a quote that relates to character motivation, conflict, or theme from the chapter and ask students to explain the quote in the context of the chapter.  If you are teaching more than one class, try to come up with different quotes for each period!  Usually, you’ll find powerful quotes near the end of a chapter or section.  For example, you could use, “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired” for Chapter Four of The Great Gatsby—Nick thinks of this quote after Jordan reveals the backstory between Daisy and Gatsby.  Asking students to explain this quote in the context of the chapter would allow them to address all five characters.


  • Student Questions: Rather than quizzing students with questions of our own device, let their entrance slips serve as the discussion starters for the day.  I use Thick & Thin questions with students all the time; with practice, they can write some very solid questions.  You can put together your own question starters (just Google Thick & Thin questions) or use my reference cards that include question stems and guide students to look at specific text features for literary or informational text.


  • Twenty in Ten: I saw this idea on a blog post about creating meaningful worksheets. The teacher gives the students 20 thought-provoking questions about an aspect of the book (a character, key idea, or the plot) and asks them to answer the questions in ten minutes.  Combine questions from  teaching guides with your own questions and student-developed questions from the Thick & Thin activities to come up with twenty different (but maybe somewhat overlapping) questions about an element of the book.  Check out his sample questions on Caliban in The Tempest to get a feel for the approach.


  • Oral Discussion: Use the same questions you would use for the Twenty in Ten activity to turn a written task into a class discussion. You can use the tried-and-true popsicle stick technique to select random students to answer your questions.  Record tally marks on a roster to track their responses (points?) throughout the reading of the book.  Another option is to record each student’s name on an index card, shuffle the cards, and choose one at random.  You can record a plus, check, or minus and the date on the card to track their reading responses.


  • Chalk Talk (Silent Collaboration): I’ve seen many variations of this idea, but my favorite for a reading check is the whole-class approach. To track individual contributions, you can make notes on your roster/index cards, or just sit back and let it happen and then use the written responses to award credit.  Students take turns visiting the board and adding to a word web about the idea/character/event started by the teacher.  Once the board is full, students can use the ideas on the board to write a response to the reading.  You might ask them to use five words from the board, for example, in their response.  The written responses will show you who has read; those who haven’t read may be inspired by the ideas on the board to begin reading.


  • Connections: This strategy might take a little work, but it’s worth it. Start collecting connections—photographs, songs, poems, video clips, or news articles—that relate to particular sections of the book and then use these as a “thinking prompt” to get students started at the beginning of class.  Ask them to make the connection between a photograph and the characters, events, or ideas from last night’s reading.  You can build your collection by asking students to bring in connections, too.


  • Moments: Ask students to specify the most important “moment” in the assigned reading and then explain why they think it is important.  They should relate their chosen moment to other events within the selection to illustrate its significance.   Even though they get to choose their own moment, their explanation should make it clear whether they have or have not read the rest of the text.  To start discussion for the day, share a few of the moments from the class and let others debate their significance.

One final suggestion—mix it up!  Use different strategies with each period each day to keep your “quiz questions” from being shared between classes.  It should be pretty easy to do, too, because these are all rather easy-to-implement reading checks.  Do you have any quick checks you can add to the list?  Please share them in the comments!

My Reading Challenge

I read all the time, but I rarely finish a book.  A month ago, I had a stack of unfinished books at least eight inches high by my bed, another unfinished book in my school bag, a few by my desk at school, and too many to count in my Kindle.  Last November or December I started to see references to reading challenges on Pinterest and decided that I could tackle one as part of a New Year’s Resolution that would be good for me and good for my blog.  In addition to following the guidelines set forth on the 26-book challenge I chose, I would write about the books, applying the lessons learned from the books to the classroom.

book challenge

While reading a magazine in December, I saw a reference to Marie Kondo’s system of organizing your closet by keeping only the clothes that bring you joy.  I’d seen Kondo’s approach in magazines and on tv, but never really understood how it could be so effective.  I went to Amazon, ordered The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and planned for that to be my first book of the challenge.  It has a bluish cover, so I’m counting it for my “book with a blue cover.”

I started the book on January 1st and on January 9th I cleaned out my closet.  Two weeks later, I tackled my books—that’s why I can’t give an exact measurement for the stack of books by my bed: it’s gone!  Both tidying sessions were hard, but strangely liberating.  Although I finished the book quickly, the process is going to take a while—Kondo calls it a marathon.  I’m still in the Komono stage and am working on cleaning out the papers in my life.  Teachers have a lot of papers.  To keep me going, I’ve purchased and am currently reading her follow-up book, Spark Joy, as my “book that was published this year.”

book challenge graphic

Between these two, I read my second book—“a book I loved before”—The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.   I thought I was going to teach a critical thinking elective at school this semester.  A friend had suggested the title as a good assignment for the class and I wanted to be prepared.  Although the class didn’t make, I think it was a definitely a good omen to rediscover the book.

Now it’s February, and although I’m doing the reading, I haven’t been doing the writing.  As the boy understands in The Alchemist: “making a decision [is] only the start of things.  When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”  I hope you’ll swim along with me as I continue to read and write my way through these 26 books.  Can’t wait to see where we end up!