Building Reading Excitement — Kwame Alexander Has the Right Idea

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A few weeks ago I received a link to sign up for Kwame Alexander’s Solo¬†launch team. My students and I ADORE Kwame’s books and I crossed my fingers that I would be one of the 400 chosen to receive an ARC of the book.

Lucky me! I got an email last week that the book was on the way and all I had to do was share the book and promote Solo across my social media platforms. Both of the tasks Blink YA books asked for are a natural part of book love for me.

Excitement built as I waited for the book to arrive. On the Solo Launch Facebook page, people were starting to share joyful pictures of the book’s arrival. I found myself rushing home in the afternoons in search of my neighborhood UPS truck or a package on the doorstep. I chatted online with other Solo launch teachers about the book and other Kwame books.

Yesterday afternoon the book arrived. I tore open the package and fanned through the pages. It felt like my birthday and summer vacation rolled into one. My husband and son could now stop listening to me talk about the book and Kwame ūüôā

Kwame and Blink YA did a wonderful job building excitement for the new release. Across the country, 400 teachers/book lovers with healthy social media presences were busy talking up the August release.

The launch got me thinking about how we build this level of excitement for our student readers. Mock Newburys, Battle of the Books, The Global Read Aloud and other community book projects have the right idea. In addition, to book talking, we need to give students a chance to anticipate a great read.

This year I taught sixth grade English and during one of our novel units, students were given the choice of 40 historical fiction titles. Our middle school has 450 sixth graders so we did not have an endless supply of every title. After a week of book talking and speed dating books, students filled out a Google form with their top 4 choices. A lot great conversations happened during that week — students recommended books to other students, friends picking a title or two they wanted to read together and more.

One of my most reluctant readers decided Gary Paulsen’s Woods Runner was the only book he wanted to read. We had 30 copies for the whole grade and it was a popular choice. I heard this student talk about the book in the halls and he asked several times when the “winners” would be announced.

“I won?!” he marveled as I handed him the new copy of Gary Paulsen’s fast-paced historical fiction tale. “I never win,” he added. He sat down in the reading corner and immediately opened the cover.

That book changed the student’s reading year. He regularly asked for new titles and talked about books with his friends. ¬†Action-packed historical fiction, ¬†graphic novels and mysteries were his favorite. He did not want particularly long books but he grew confident in articulating what he looked for in a book.

Winning is a good feeling. When I was chosen for the Solo book launch my strong interest in the new release turned into tangible anticipation. “Winning” a copy of a limited novel for a novel unit opened the door to reading for one student.

Next year I plan to be more intentional in building anticipation for books. I will launch book clubs, incorporate more student voice in classroom library purchases and talk up new titles before they arrive to build excitement for reading. I will talk to my students about larger community reading projects to spark interest.

My hope for next year is each of my 8th grade students will feel as lucky as I did yesterday when the bright read cover of Kwame Alexander’s Solo slipped out of the UPS package.

Real World Mentor Texts

IMG_2549On Sunday mornings, my favorite thing to do is sip coffee on the porch while reading The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post. This weekend ritual is especially sweet in the summer months because there is no rush to get on to a long list of chores.

This summer my weekend reading has another purpose: finding real world mentor texts for my 8th grade students. Next year I am moving up from 6th grade to 8th grade English. One perk of this switch is a broader choice of topics and a deeper level of sophistication for reading.

With the 2016-2017 school year complete, I find myself looking to fill my teaching toolbox with mentor texts that will speak to older students. Fortunately, interesting mentor texts are all around.

In this Sunday’s papers I found several worthy examples:

  • a NYT¬†SportsSunday front page story entitled, “Soccer’s Art of Calculating a Player’s Worth.” In the midst of the player transfer window, the NYT breaks down what the dollars mean. This article is great for soccer fans but could be paired with an article about trades in hockey and basketball going on now or an article about the famous Alex Rodriguez baseball contract that changed pricing in baseball. ¬†In addition, I can hand this article to a student reading Kwame Alexander’s Booked.
  • a timeline of the 2016 U.S. election and new revelations. Today’s heated political environment is put in the context of revelations and their timing. What I like about this article is the format. The authors are able to distill a great deal of information into short sentences laid out on a timeline.
  • “36 Hours in Dubrovnik, Croatia” in the NYT travel section.¬†Author and teacher Kelly Gallagher first turned me on to the value of these page-long articles. Each week the NYT offers a 36 hour guide to some location. I collect the articles and ask students to consider location selection, theme and¬†what is most striking in the article. In the past my students have written their own “36 Hours in…” and comparing a few selections from the NYT is particularly valuable.
  • Another find in the NYT travel section is the “Surfacing” column. This regular series offers readers five places to go in some city around the world. ¬†The series differs from “36 Hours in…” because the articles tend to be more thematic. This week features “Low-key Options for Nighthawks in Logan Square,” a location in Chicago where my son happens to live. My son is a night owl and Chicago is a favorite city for me so I immediately found the value in the theme.
  • “Why I Resigned from the Foreign Service after 27 Years” by David Rank in The Washington Post is found on the opinion editorial page. In the article, Rank, America’s senior diplomat in China, lays out his reasoning for leaving now. First, Rank describes his wealth of experience, his proud non-partisan stand, his close calls with danger as well as missed family moments. After the first few paragraphs, Mr. Rank is well positioned to state his concerns for America’s future. This article would be useful in a class discussion about what makes a strong position piece because it definitely has pluses and minuses.

These are just a few of the examples I found in two newspapers on a Sunday morning. Each day can bring new mentor texts if we just read with an eye toward writing.

On Sundays, we receive a weekly Blue Apron box that makes some week nights easier. the box includes recipes and all the precise ingredients to make quick meals. A few weeks ago, the box included a full color booklet entitled, “The Secret Story of Soil.” Filled with beautiful pictures this booklet included charts, a glossary and an article featuring a small farmer in northern California. As a former public affairs executive, I recognize the pamphlet as a clever marketing tool aimed at connecting the Blue Apron box with the local farm stand. However, as a teacher I find this piece of non-fiction writing illuminating. Other booklets have included “The Power of Pollination” about bees, “The Fight to Save Salmon” and “The Wide World of Wheat.” ¬†My Blue Apron box has become a source of highly focused, non-fiction mentor texts! Students can look at content, source and reliability.

I am excited to see what other mentor texts pop up over the summer. If you have any go-to spots for real world mentor texts, please share your ideas in the comment section.