We read 777 choice books this year.  Each link = one book!


This student had never read a book before entering my classroom. This year he read four.

This has been the best year ever.
By moving my class into a workshop model, my students have read more than ever. They’ve liked and understood what they’ve read.

They’ve not only written more than ever, but they’ve actually enjoyed what they’ve written, and their writing was the best I’ve ever seen.

We have a curriculum, but they’ve been given choices all year.  When presented with a literature unit, they’ve picked the book.  When presented with a writing assignment, they’ve picked their topic.

As I continue in this model, I’m contemplating changing the structure of our year with the first semester focused on our writing workshop, continuing to use poetry and smaller texts as models.

I’d like our second semester focused on literature in the form of genre studies.  I’ll still weave writing throughout the semester, but I’d like to see my students build more stamina in their choice reading before tackling some of the harder, assigned texts.


choicesI taught a few stories from J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in these final weeks of school, and I’d love to use that book as a mentor text during that first semester.  Despite what my students call its “old-fashioned talking,” those short stories are complex and perfect for analysis practice.

Next year, I’d also like to have my students build blogs at the beginning of the year.  During this last month, my students were encouraged to publish their work to earn “Exemplary” grades (one student even took to Twitter for publication!), but we definitely needed a lesson on how to build and market a blog earlier.  If we had done this at the beginning of the year, it would have sunk in…but in these final weeks, it didn’t.

chartThat said, this has been the most rewarding year of my teaching career. 
When given permission to really take my class full-press into a reader/writer workshop, I was prepared for a lot of work.

It was a lot of work.

This isn’t easy. Building a culture of competent readers and writers takes very, very hard work.  

On top of planning and grading, you have to conference with students every day.
You have to read a book a week to inform recommendations.
You have to write your own essays and bring them to workshop.
In a genre study, you have to read four books at a time, write discussion points, and guide groups of students through the text. 

You have to truly, genuinely know every single student that sits in your room.

And it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. 


Our Best Books of the Year

While there is always a lot of diversity in the books that my students pick as their choice reads, these books have been our “most read” and “must-reads” this year.

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Despite it being adult-targeted science fiction, this has been the most popular book in our classroom this year by miles.  Space scares me.  I didn’t want to read this, but after I read the first sentence,  I was hooked.  (You will be too.)  Mark Watney is one of the greatest characters to ever exist, and even though I was terrified for him the entire time, I  I bought two copies because I left mine on my desk over a weekend and couldn’t face the weekend without it.


Winger/Stand-Off by Andrew Smith
I’m not shy about my gigantic author crush on Andrew Smith.  Winger and its sequel, Stand-Off, have been read by almost everyone in my classes at this point.  Winger begins with its protagonist, Ryan Dean West, beginning boarding school as a 14-year-old junior.  It’s hilarious, and then it ruins your life.  My students tell me that Stand-Off makes you feel a little bit better about life, but I haven’t read it yet because I can’t keep it on my shelf.    This summer!


Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
This makes the list of “most popular books” every.single.year.  This memoir was published in 2002, but I can’t keep it on my shelf for more than a day.  It’s popular with both genders, and I think that’s because it has some crazy passages, inappropriate language, and risque chapters.  It’s also stolen from our classroom library every year, which to me, is the mark of a great book.  

Prisoner B-3087
by Alan Gratz
This book is about a Jewish boy in the 1930s who experiences 10 different concentration camps.  It’s (obviously) sad, but because it’s not as excruciatingly graphic as a book like Night, it makes for a great choice read.  This short novel is actually intended for middle-grade students, but my high school students have enjoyed it all year.  Many students who read military history and military memoirs pick this up as an “easy” read.  

The Art of Being Normal
by Lisa Williamson
Despite being an LGBTQ advocate, I never truly understood what it’s like being a transgender person until I read this book about a person who is born male, but identifies as female.  This book gives a much-needed voice to transgender teens while also providing emotional moments and plot twists.  Plus, because it’s British, it makes you feel super fancy while you read it.  

The 5th Wave
by Rick Yancey
Our classroom copy of The 5th Wave has been well-read this year because of the film release.  I hesitated in picking this up (because, remember, space scares me), but I’m glad that I did, even though I had nightmares for two weeks.  This science fiction book has a storyline that’s grounded in reality, with an average teenage girl discovering that her world is about to be destroyed by aliens.  Because it’s science fiction combined with romance, all kinds of readers liked this one, including me.  


To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before/PS I still Love You by Jenny Han
These are so popular in my classroom and I loved them too. In this series, sixteen-year-old Lara Jean writes love letters to all of the boys that she’s had crushes on, and locks the letters in a box in her closet.  When her younger sister finds and mails them, she’s faced with a lot of awkward explanation, and then finds herself in a love triangle.  At the end of the second book, most of us threw it across the room.

Escape from Camp 14
by Blane Harden
I gratefully received my copy of this book at the NCTE convention in Boston a few years ago, and it’s been a hit with my students ever since.  This biography details Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to escape from an internment camp in North Korea. Because it gives readers a glimpse into what life is really like in North Korea, it instantly hooks readers.  This book has appealed to many students who are interested in military history, but it’s also been read by students who enjoy realistic fiction and memoir.

(My students helped me write and edit this post through writing workshop!)



Freedom. Rigor.


Workshop day

Workshop day.

Providing choice doesn’t decrease rigor. 
Sometimes, outsiders think that because my students have a choice in their reading and their writing, our class is “easy.”

Today, I asked one of my Honors students what she thought of that.
She said, “You do get to choose your topic, but it’s not just kittens and rainbows all the time.  You actually have to use your brain and think about it, and come up with the best way to express what you’re thinking…it’s not that easy all the time.”

I mean, there are kittens and rainbows around my classroom (really), but she’s right.  Most of the time, we choose our content and we choose our topics, but we work very, very hard in here.

We produce multiple drafts through our whole-class workshop, and sometimes, students will revise five times until they’re happy with their final product.

livdraftingOur final workshops.
In these final weeks of school, my students have (almost) complete freedom when it comes to the final pieces they’ll bring to workshop.

They have to choose one of the genres we’ve practiced and decide which rubric works, but they can write about whatever they want.  I was nervous about giving them this freedom, since the last time I left them to their own brains, they floundered for awhile before finally producing a draft.

This time, they’re loving it.
While some students are writing narratives and reflective essays, most…are writing research papers.


Preliminary cat research.

Yes, most chose research.
One student in my fourth period class is writing an analysis on different types of cats, while another is writing an inform/explain piece about the Space Race.

A handful of students are writing new essays with recycled prompts.  Some are writing another lyric analysis, and others are revisiting the “I was a witness” prompt from earlier this year.

One student is using this assignment to workshop a “personal statement” that he’ll have to read in traffic court in a few weeks.

A few others are writing lengthy reviews of their favorite books to post on GoodReads.

We’re having fun with our writing again.
These last few weeks have been my favorite days of the year.  As much as I’m looking forward to summer adventures, I wish we had more time to write seventeen more pieces like this one. 



April celebrations!

april chain

Each link of that yellow chain represents a choice book read during April

We read 74 choice books last month!

Spring fever has hit.  Prom is two weeks away.  It’s getting warmer.  The end of the year is in sight.  Everything is distracting.  We’re still reading.

That’s 635 books read so far this year!  

april totals

Leveled Genre Study: Holocaust Literature

I’ve left school every day this past week with a pit in my stomach and tears in my eyes.

I’m teaching Holocaust literature.
It’s incredibly important for my students to learn, but it’s also incredibly difficult for me to teach.  What happened during the Holocaust is horrific on its own, but as someone with Eastern European and Jewish roots, it’s especially hard  for me to stomach.


Background knowledge.

I’m running a genre study around this work, but it looks a little different in my Honors class than it does in my CP classes.

But that’s what the workshop model is all about:  Our end goal is the same, but all students are able to take the path that works best for them.

To start, we watched one of John Green’s Crash Course clips and took quick notes on what was going on during WWII aside from the Holocaust.


Thanks to The History Channel, many of my students already have a bit of background knowledge on Hilter’s actions during WWII.  Because of this, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with long, drawn-out background documents.

Instead, I split a 12-page informational passage into 12 pieces and we ran a jigsaw.  Each student read and summarized a section, and then read that section aloud to the class.  While they were reading, the rest of us (me too!) took notes that would be reused on the summative later.

This note-taking was hard, and my students hated it because it was hard.  I insisted that instead of asking their classmates to repeat sentences, they had to ask specific questions of the author.  So instead of saying, “Wait.  What?”  they asked questions like, “You said that there were a certain number of Jews who escaped.  What was that number again?”

(I actually recorded one of my classes during the note-taking session because I was so impressed, but I promised I wouldn’t publish it!)

The Literature

discussion space

Our discussion space. 

In my Honors class, we’re running our  genre study  with novels.  My students chose between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and while we read and discuss, they’re pulling pithy quotes that they’ll reuse on their summative assessment later.  


Our discussions are tough, specifically with Night.  While Wiesel’s book is beautifully written, it’s also horrifically detailed, and we leave our discussion feeling sick and sad.

Originally, I had planned to use these same novels in a genre study in my CP classes too, but since we’ve spent so much (valuable!) time in writing workshop over the last few months, time has gotten away from us.

So in my CP classes, we’re sampling a variety of literature.   Our amazing librarian Pam Harland compiled some resources for us, and we started with this bank of diaries, letters, and memoirs from Yad Vashem.  Because giving my students choice is at the center of everything we do in my classroom, students chose whichever passages they wanted to work with.  They read, summarized, pulled quotes, and then shared their findings with the class.

Next week, my CP students will choose excerpts from either Night or Diary of a Young Girl to work with, and then, finally, they’ll work with poetry of their choice.

My Honors summative assessment is a little different than my CP assessment, but our end goal is the same.  At the end of this month, all of  my students will conduct research into current cases of genocide in the world.  They’ll compile their reading analysis and research together in an answer to our essential question in a summative performance assessment of their choice.

This is an incredibly difficult subject for me to teach, but teaching it though a genre study has been extremely valuable for my students.  Their ability to choose (and abandon) texts has helped them become emotionally invested in the texts, which is what we want when we teach Holocaust literature…so history doesn’t repeat itself.  

We made it to shore.

I was nervous about letting my students flail around to find their way on our argumentative writing practice. After providing formulas and exemplars all year,  I took away the lifeboats of a formula and exemplar for this assignment.  Their uncertainty and stress broke my heart a little.


Arsty workshop feedback

Three weeks later, we’ve finished.
It took a lot of patience on my part, and a lot of perseverance on theirs.

We spent the entire first week thinking and drafting, and then the next week, ran our pieces through workshop.

We revised. 

After our first revision, we ran through another workshop that was focused around the rubric.

During our assessment workshop, we used crayons to identify the background information, the arguments and counterarguments, and then the proposed solutions.  After that, we wrote our (color-coded) feedback for our authors.

We revised again.


Final revisions

Our final products were near-perfect, but what’s better:
The freedom from a formula and exemplar encouraged my students to be creative in their (normally boring) argumentative writing work.

While most wrote essays and letters, some wrote raps, memoirs, and one student even wrote a one-act play.  Another wrote a novella.  

That kind of creativity wouldn’t have happened with a formula and exemplar.

That’s worth three weeks.