Book Talks vs. Book Reports

When I was a child I had to do traditional book reports. We had to read X amount of books and write a certain amount of words/paragraphs/pages about the books that we read. I've always been an avid reader but once in 6th grade I remember writing an entire book report based upon just chapter one and the summary on the back of the book. Those were the days before the internet and I was still able to pretend I'd read a book. Today it's much easier to pretend you've read a book.

How many books have students read for pleasure in the past year?

As an ELA teacher I give book talks pretty much every day. Students will ask me what I'm currently reading, if I've read a certain book, to recommend a book or to tell them about a book in my classroom library. Also every time I teach a new book I do a book talk before giving out the books. I give so many informal book talks it's like second nature to me.

Many of my students aren't readers and they hate public speaking. As teachers we need to figure out ways to foster a love of reading and try to help students get over their fear of public speaking.

When I started teaching I gave students traditional book reports. I wanted them to read more so we'd have the book we were reading as a class and then they'd have to pick one book to read independently each marking period. The problems are that 1) I didn't know if they were actually reading and 2) book reports are boring. They didn't like writing them and in all honesty I didn't like reading them. I wanted to foster a love for reading and book reports were not the way to do it.

A few years ago my school started having independent reading once a week in all ELA classes. As a department we decided which day to do this. Students could either read a book from the classroom library or bring their own. Obviously everyone reads at their own pace and everyone picked books of varying lengths. I didn't assign a due date but I told students that they had to do one book talk each marking period. I modeled a formal book talk using a book I'd read recently. I used the following format:

Title of Book
Author
Number of Pages
Information about the author
Summary of the book ( a paragraph or two)
Connections to the book
Read a passage to the class and explain why you chose it.
Recommendation (Who would enjoy this book?)

After the book talk I asked the class if they had questions. After each student's book talk their classmates asked questions. Sometimes (not always) after a book talk other students wanted to read a book someone else had read. That never happens with a book report. The more book talks a student did (they sometimes did more than required), the more comfortable they got speaking in front of the class.

How often do your students visit the library?

I still had students that didn't love reading but I think that book talks were effective for many students. Even if you don't have time for independent reading during class, I think you should consider having students give book talks in class. It will help them with public speaking and the class will learn about a variety of books.

Seven Scary Stories to Read in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love watching scary movies on TV, I love planning which costume I'll wear this year to my friend's annual party and I love reading scary stories with my high school students. Whenever I think of Halloween I think of Edgar Allan Poe.

I used to always teach "The Tell-Tale Heart" which is one of my favorite stories to teach this time of year. We'd start the story and then all of a sudden a student will say "Is this the story where....?" and all of a sudden the entire story is ruined for every kid who hasn't read it yet. "The Tell-Tale Heart is a wonderful story but so many ELA teachers teach it that you're bound to have a student that has read and can potentially ruin it for others. This scenario has happened with "The Raven" as well. I used to teach "The Raven" every year on Halloween but a few years ago I started doing scary story writing instead because too many students had already read it. This is especially true on the high school level. For this very reason I started looking for other stories to teach. Of course I still love to teach Poe but I tend to stay away from "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven."



Below is a list of seven scary stories that I've used successfully in my ELA classes.

"The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe

My students really like this story even though the narrator who is both crazy and an alcoholic abuses a cat. They like that not only does the narrator get caught, but he gets caught because of the second cat. I've used this story with students who were already familiar with Poe.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe

The one thing my students love about this story is that the narrator gets away with murder. Unlike the narrator in "The Tale-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," this narrator gets away with it. They always wonder exactly what the insults were but that's where our imaginations can fill in the blanks. This story can be used with any high school grade.

"The Bad Babysitter" by R.L. Stine

Most of my students are familiar with the Goosebumps books so when I use a short story by R.L. Stine they get excited. Although this story isn't as gruesome as Poe's stories there is an element of magic and mischief that makes this story ideal for Halloween. (I don't want to give away too much for those of you that haven't read it.) I've used this story with 9th graders in the past.

"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner

This is a story that I would use with either 11th or 12th graders. When I taught AP Literature and Composition this short story was in the textbook. This story isn't a horror story with gore but it definitely falls into the category of Southern Gothic. The entire story seems like a sad love story until the very end when find out that not only did she kill him, but she slept next to his dead, decaying body for years (the grey hair on the pillow). Other things (that I won't mention here) often come up in student questions when we get to that unique ending.

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

"The Lottery" is another story that is taught by so many teachers that you might run the risk of students ruining the ending. Despite the foreshadowing (the children gathering rocks, people being nervous about the lottery, etc) my students are always shocked by the ending. I always get questions about the setting and whether or not this story is non-fiction. This is definitely a story that students will remember. I've used this story with grades 9-12.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs

"The Monkey's Paw" is definitely a scary story and it even starts out on a stormy evening which you'd expect in this type of tale. I always enjoy the classroom discussions about our own three wishes. I usually do this story with upper grades because there is some difficult vocabulary in it.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The Yellow Wallpaper" doesn't seem like a horror story at first. It's the story of a woman who is sick and her husband decides to rent a house in the country so she can recover. What happens in the house is what makes this story a Gothic tale. The language is difficult because the story was written over 100 years ago so I use this story with 11th and 12th graders. This story always brings up discussion about gender equality and traditional gender roles.

I have a free PowerPoint lesson in my TpT store for the poem "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy. I often pair up the poem "Barbie Doll" with "A Rose for Emily" or "The Yellow Wallpaper. Sometimes I do all three works of literature.

I usually teach two or three scary stories and then the week of Halloween I have my students write their own scary stories using story starters. In the upper grades we don't celebrate every holiday the way that some do in the lower grades but Halloween tends to easily fit into the secondary ELA classroom.

You don't need to have a fancy color printer. You can print in grayscale and it still looks great. 

For years students have been fascinated by horror shows, horror films and horror novels. Utilize this time of the year to read some stories that will appeal to your students. You can always tie these short stories into the longer works you teach later in the year. (Compare and contrast characters, what would the narrator from ________ story do in this situation,? etc.)

I hope you have a hauntingly good time in your ELA classroom this fall.

First Week Jitters

Everyone knows that your first year of teaching is tough. I remember being told that it gets easy after 5 years. Some things definitely get easier with time but it never gets "easy." Here I am with 16 years experience and I still think that September is hard. Most of my friends are teachers and all I've seen on social media for the past few weeks are people talking about having back to school nightmares. We're not rookies, why are still having first week jitters?

I always love the first day back. I'm not talking about the first day with the kids, I'm talking about the day we have staff meetings. When you've worked in a school for many years the first day is like a reunion with old friends. I saw maybe 4 of my co-workers during the summer. People are busy with their families, some work another job, while others go on vacation. The first day back it's nice to see all of the familiar faces and meet a few new people.

Then there comes the moment of dread....

How many classrooms am I in? How big are my classes? How many grades am I teaching? In a perfect world I'd know my schedule and my room(s) in June but I tend to find out that first day back. This is one reason why my classroom will never look like the classrooms I see all over Pinterest and I'm ok with that. With one or two days notice and anywhere from one to three classrooms I know my teaching environment won't look good until the end of the first marking period when it's covered with student work and anchor charts.

This is my old classroom and it took a lot of time to look like this.


One thing I've learned is that whether I'm teaching 9th grade ELA or AP English the first few days I need to get to know my students and obtain a writing sample. With 9th and 10th grade I usually do "Two Truths and a Lie" which is always a fun activity. I have the students write three paragraphs about themselves and two have to be true and one is a lie. They take turns sharing their paragraphs and we get to know each other and we have some laughs in the process. I always write about things no one would expect and the students always think that my true statements sound fake.  With 11th and 12th grade I usually have them interview each other and present their partner to the class. I think that presentation skills are important and many high school students have stage fright.

When my friends start having the back to school nightmares about coming to school without their lesson plans I remind them that with Google Drive that can't happen. Sure every year is different and every year has it's own set of challenges but one thing that I absolutely love about teaching is that every day is different. I don't have a 9-5 job that's the same day in and day out and I don't think I could be in an environment like that.

Are you new to teaching? Here's a freebie to help you get through those first few days.



We all have first week jitters, it's something we can't get rid of. Each school year is a new beginning. The start of something new is both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Have a great school year.

Why I Like To Teach Controversial Literature

When I was in 7th grade I read the novel Go Ask Alice. I was a naive young girl who grew up in the plastic bubble of suburbia. For me Go Ask Alice was a cautionary tale and to this day I've never tried drugs because of that book. The events that the main character went through scared the you know what out of me.

Five or six years ago I read the book 13 Reasons Why with a book club that I was in with some fellow teachers. I wanted to read the book because I had seen several students reading it and the plot intrigued me. After reading the novel I put it in my classroom library and added it as a choice when I did literature circles.

Although the book was on the best sellers list many years ago, the book is drawing a lot of attention (both positive and negative) because of the Netflix series. Some people think that the show romanticizes suicide and will give kids bad ideas. Yes the suicide scene in the show was shockingly graphic. I had read the book twice and I was taken aback. In the novel she took pills and in the show she slits her wrists. I read somewhere that this show was giving kids that are bullied instructions for killing themselves. I'm sorry but that's nonsense.

Maybe Hannah didn't know how to tell her parents. Maybe she thought that since they had financial issues, she didn't want to be a burden. Who knows? Maybe we can ask the author. Maybe like Go Ask Alice, 13 Reasons Why is a cautionary tale. Maybe the critics should focus more on anti-bullying and getting help for sexual assault victims. Did Hannah's friends turn on her? Yes. Did Hannah have a lousy guidance counselor? Yes. The reader/audience knows that she could have turned to Clay but she felt like she couldn't trust guys and to be honest you can't really blame her.

Many teachers are saying that they won't teach the novel because it's about suicide but these same teachers teach Romeo and Juliet which is in essence a play about suicide and death. What's the difference? Romeo and Juliet felt like they couldn't talk to their parents (just like Hannah). Just like Hannah, Romeo and Juliet killed themselves and didn't think about all the people they left behind. Not to mention all of the other people that died because of them (Tybalt, Mercutio, Paris and Lady Montague.)

Life is messy, sometimes friends suck. sometimes you have a teacher that's not trained to be a guidance counselor (in the book at least), and sometimes you feel like you have no one turn to. This doesn't mean that every kid that is bullied is going to pull a Hannah. Maybe it will be a cautionary tale and the depressed/bullied individual will be able to look around and realize that they do have someone they can trust and turn to. Maybe reading a book like this in class (even as independent reading from your classroom library) will help a student in need. I always find that teaching young adult books that deal with these types of issues bring up good class discussion. You never know when discussing a "controversial" topic that's in one of these books can help a student in need.





P.S. I have a friend from high school whose daughter has been bullied for the past 2 or 3 years. She attempted suicide and was hospitalized for many months. She's now in counseling and doing better. This friend watched the Netflix series with her daughter and she wrote on Facebook that she thinks that every parent and teenager should watch the series. The world isn't perfect, please stop being scared of "controversial" literature.

Holocaust Remembrance Day


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. I'm not going to post a lot of statistics or photographs that will make you cry. I'm not a historian and there are plenty of sites for you to find that sort of information. I will tell you that I am the granddaughter of 3 Holocaust survivors and because of this fact I find it extremely important to teach about The Holocaust.

In a few years all of the survivors will be gone and as educators it is our responsibility to pass on their stories to the next generation. I have been lucky enough to meet many survivors over the years at The Jewish Heritage Museum. If you're in the NYC area you should definitely pay a visit to this museum. It's in Battery Park in lower Manhattan.

As an English teacher I find it very important to teach Holocaust Literature. In my school it's on the 10th grade curriculum. My students learn about World War II and the Holocaust in Global Studies so when we get to our Holocaust Literature Unit they already have some background knowledge. Sometimes they've already read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school but that depends upon the school that they went to. I love to teach the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel because it's a real account and the narrator is about the same age as my students so I think they can relate to him.

A few years ago I had what my school calls a "repeater class." It was a 10th grade English class but the students all should have been in 11th or 12th grade. I decided that instead of using the memoir Night with them that I'd teach the fictional novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. I taught the novel and showed the film and my students were really affected by the ending. I won't spoil it in case you have yet to read the book or see the film but it's a Holocaust book so you know it's sad. You can pick whatever memoir or novel suits your fancy but I think it's important to teach our students about this devastating time-period in history


Shakespeare's Birthday

Every year on April 23rd (Shakespeare's accepted birthday) I write on the board next to the date "Happy Birthday William Shakespeare". Every year I get made fun of for this and I don't care. It's one of those things that I love to do.

Have you ever read a book and the language was so rich that you could read it several times and get something different out of it each time? That's how I feel about Shakespeare. I've probably taught Romeo and Juliet eight times but it never gets old. I could teach Hamlet every year and never get tired of it. When a story is that good, it never gets old.

I've worked with some teachers that refuse to teach Shakespeare. I've worked with other teachers that will use the Shakespeare Made Easy books. Those books are great for certain classes but I would never completely abandon the original language. Yes it's difficult, yes the play might take twice the amount of time to teach as another literature unit but I think it's worth it. I always say that no child should graduate from high school without having read at least one Shakespearean play.

The language is difficult but that's why we have footnotes, online summaries and nerdy English teachers like myself. Once you get past the language the stories are universal. Romeo and Juliet are two teenagers that want to be together but their parents say no. Hamlet is a kid that's upset that his dad died and his mom re-married quickly. Othello is about an interracial couple and all the problems that society has with them. Macbeth is about a guy that is greedy for power. I could go on but I think you get the point.

Here we have a man who wrote plays over 400 years ago with themes that still apply to our world today. How many authors can we say that about? I love many modern authors but I highly doubt people will be reading their books in 400 years. So for that reason and that reason alone I will always say Happy Birthday William Shakespeare every April and I don't know the birthday of any other author despite the fact that I'm an avid reader.

Poetry In The Classroom

Many students today dislike poetry. I know that I often hear grunts, groans and other sounds of displeasure when the aim on my board has the word poetry in it. I don't usually have an isolated poetry unit because I fear for my life. LOL just kidding. I don't have an isolated unit because I teach poetry all year long.

I incorporate poetry with every novel and play that I teach. I always find poetry that relates to the theme, the time-period, the genre, etc. Sometimes I'll do an isolated poetry lesson or two but I only do that if I don't want to start a new unit. (Example I end a unit a few days before Spring Break and I don't want to start something new.)

When I teach the play A Raisin in the Sun, I incorporate numerous poems including the poem by Langston Hughes that inspired the title of the play. When I teach the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I use poetry about The Holocaust. Before teaching any Shakespearean play I start with some of Shakespeare's sonnets. Without fail I always have a student that has never read Shakespeare and I like to read a few sonnets as an introduction to the language. Those are just a few examples of how I incorporate poetry into my literature units.

When I do teach isolated poetry lessons I try find "fun" poems that I think my students can relate to. One poem that I sometimes use as an isolated poetry lesson is the poem "Barbie" by Marge Piercy. It usually brings up some interesting discussion in class about gender inequality and the affects of bullying. I have a free PowerPoint lesson for the poem in my TpT store for this particular poem.

I always need to teach poetry lessons when I'm preparing students for exams such as the New York State Regents exam and the AP Literature exam. Both of those high stakes exams include poetry. I have another blog post about analyzing poetry. Click here to read that blog post.

I know that April is National Poetry Month and that many teachers dedicate some time this month for teaching poetry. I love poetry so much that I teach a little here and there all year round. I find that teaching a day or two of poetry here and there is tolerated more by my students than spending a full 3 or 4 weeks on poetry. I always get a student here or there that loves poetry as much as I do, but for the most part students aren't into the complexity that poetry sometimes presents. I hear comments like "Why can't the author just say what they mean?" Maybe your students are different than mine but I can only speak from my experiences.