Major celebrations.

feb chain

Each link of this pink chain represents a choice novel read during February!

We read 81 books last month!  (That’s 493 so far this year.)

But what I really want to celebrate:
Today one of my students finished the first book of his life.  And he read it in two days.    

I’ve worked with this guy since his freshman year, and it has felt like the Most Impossible Task to settle him into a book.  I estimate that over the 16 months we’ve worked together, I’ve suggested 79,827 books to him, most of which were abandoned after a sentence.

3239487I knew that there was a book out there somewhere in the world for him.  And then, yesterday, when I book-talked the graphic novel Yummy, about a teenager growing up in a violent neighborhood in Chicago, it happened.  He immediately snatched it and started reading.

When our reading time was up, he groaned and said, “MS. BONIN, I DON’T WANT TO STOP READING!”  I felt like I was dreaming.  Then, today, he finished it.

He put up our first link for March this afternoon, and I wanted to pull him out onto the track for a victory lap.  But instead, we high-fived and woo-yelled.  A lot.

I never, ever give up on recommending and searching for choice books for even my most reluctant readers. 

It’s all about finding that first book.  It took 16 months of research, suggestions, and support on my part (and a lot of resistance and skepticism on his part), but I didn’t give up on him.  This could be the start of something great.



Celebration (and Accountability)

january chain

We read 112 choice books last month!

Each link of the white chain above represents a choice book finished in January.

I do the same things every month to support our choice reading:  I book talk, I model, I conference, I high five and I encourage the abandonment of books that don’t quite fit.

I also pass around a clipboard during our reading time where students mark their pages.  My students are expected to read for ten minutes every night, and they do have a reading goal they’re expected to meet each week.

Our Formula:
(pages read in ten minutes) x 12 increments of 10 minutes each week = (rate)

choice read pagesTruthfully, I really don’t care if they make their reading goal or not.
I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who get frustrated by the accountability clipboard, since it tells them that many (okay, most) students aren’t reading at night.  After reviewing the data, they lecture their students about their failure to complete their homework.  Reading again becomes WORK, and students again hate it.

As you can see from our chart, most of my students don’t meet their reading goal every week.  Some students may read five pages a week, while some read 126.

I force myself not to be frustrated.  I tell my students to be honest during the clipboard rotation, because I’m not going to yell if they’re not meeting their goal.  Because they’re still reading.   

If students aren’t progressing in their books, I conference with them more often.  More often than not, at the first check-in of a slow reader, it’s revealed that they hate their book.  So I pull new books, and we toss the boring one back on the shelf.

reading binderI keep all of my students on the same chart, because I like when they spy on what everyone else is reading.  The titles that pop up the most often are the titles that I stock in my classroom library.  (The most popular right now:  To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Martian, and Stand-Off.)

Nobody in my classroom is ever without a book during our reading time.  When students write that they’ve finished a book, or just leave their space blank, that’s my cue to pull a pile of new books for them.  At this point of the year, I know exactly what genre each of my students prefers and what genres they hate, so pulling recommendations is easy.

Our choice reading also helps me get to know my students better.  I keep all of our old logs in a three-ring binder, and I use them as a reference when I’m stuck on titles, or when I want to check out old reading rates.  (This also comes in handy when I’m trying to track down missing books in June!)

I accept that my room might be the only place that my students can read, and I support them however I can.

We’ve read 412 choice novels so far this year.  



Analysis: Text isn’t just the printed word.

rubric reviewThese writing workshops have been dreams come true.

Our whole-class writing and editing model has produced the best writing I’ve ever seen from students.  I don’t dread grading anymore.  I’ve genuinely loved reading their pieces, because with choice, comes different topics and a true author’s voice.

Most of the writing that we’ve done up to this point has been fairly enjoyable to my students.  We’ve moved beyond the five-paragraph essay.  They’ve been able to have their own voices, opinions and experiences (even in research-based tasks).

So when they saw that our next stop was analytical writing, they groaned.  Loudly.

They’re not looking forward to analysis.
I understand why:  they’ve practiced it a lot in response to difficult literary and informational text throughout their school careers.  It’s hard for them, and they view critical analysis as totally boring.

This week, we talked about how when you watch the same movie again, you notice new things.  And when you listen to the same song again, you hear new things.  That’s why we need to reread text to increase our understanding.

When I told them that analyzing text wasn’t always boring, they rolled their eyes, inwardly and outwardly.  So I showed them a painting of weird naked people.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

I love Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”   It’s one of my faves from my art history courses in college because of its complexity, total weirdness, and opportunities for multiple interpretations.

Too often, when my students read text, they rush through their assignment looking for the correct answer. But analysis isn’t about the right answer.  It’s about close-reading.  Rereading.  Contemplation.

They’re used to text being only the printed word.  But text isn’t just the printed word.

first viewWe examined Bosch’s painting three times and took notes during each examination, only commenting on what we saw and keeping our interpretations to ourselves.

We maintained total quiet during our first five-minute study.  It was very difficult for them, since there’s a LOT that they wanted to talk about when they saw this painting.  They wrote down quick notes on what they saw.  I covered the painting, and we shared out.

Then, I zoomed in on the lower-left.  Again, we quietly studied the painting and wrote down what we saw, sharing out afterwards.  This time, I left the painting up and let my students point out the strange things they saw.

We quietly studied once more, this time looking at the lower-right side of the painting.  We talked through what we saw one last time, and finally, they had to decide what the heck this painting was about.

This is always the hardest part.
My students are always terrified to come up with the “wrong” answer in their analytical writing, and no matter how many times I assure them that analysis is all about their own thoughts and their own supporting evidence from the text, they‘re always scared to take a risk and make an educated guess.  

analysis paragraph

Since we’d already shared out what we saw, most students weren’t afraid to share their interpretations of the text.  (But first, I made them hide their erasers from themselves.  They always self-doubt after they hear the first share!)

One student thought the artist was showing the progression of drug-use:  first things are normal, then they’re crazy, and then you die.  (Whoa.) I’ve never thought of that interpretation, and I loved it.

varied analysis

Some thought the painting was a warning of times to come.  Others leaned more towards a more religious analysis of this painting:  the first panel shows the beginning of life, then everyone sins their brains out and we all end up in Hell.

I never told them what I learned about the meaning of the painting in my art history courses .  

Despite the fact that almost all of my students’ analytical pieces of writing strayed from what many historians feel is the meaning of Bosch’s painting, their answers were correct because they supported them with evidence from the text.



Celebrations and our new home.

december chain

We read 92 choice novels in December!

Each link of the green paper chain represents a choice book finished during the month of December.

That’s 300 choice novels read so far this year!  


When I share our choice reading accomplishments, the first question I always receive is,
“How the heck do you do it?” 

Sometimes, I really don’t know.  Every month, I’m in shock and awe of our accomplishments.  This kind of success never gets old.

Choice reading is the backbone of our curriculum, but it’s also very-low pressure.  My students can abandon books whenever they want, and they’re not formally assessed on their choice books.  (I do informally assess them during reading conferences to make sure they understand and like their books.)

Another thing that I decided early-on:  I’d never make my students compete around their choice reading.  Because my students are in different places as readers, I knew competition would cause embarrassment and frustration…and lots of fake reading.

That’s why we have the chain.  Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we’re all celebrating our accomplishments together.

I have a new classroom!  (Why?  Our middle school had an emergency and has spent some time in our building while repairs were made.)

whole class

We’re at the end of a hallway, so everything feels very cozy.  For the first time in seven years, I don’t share a collapsible wall with another classroom, so we don’t need noise-cancelling for our silent reading. I’ve always shared a wall with great teachers, but the noise can be distracting during reading, so this feels like a peaceful resort.

tree construction

It’s also been fun to put everything back together.  On our first day back, we used the leaves from our Lines We Love tree as writing prompts, and then rearranged them on our (much bigger) new tree.

back of room

I’m currently writing from that brown beanbag.

I’ve been able to rethink and rearrange my classroom library to take up the whole back wall, which has made my bookshelves and seating much more accessible and less out-of-the way for those sitting in desks.


Besides the back of the room, I have two other reading areas.

Moving classrooms halfway through the year had the potential to be super stressful, but with the help of my administrators and my colleagues, it was a seamless move. I’m so grateful.

I love this new room.  I can’t wait to see how it inspires us this year.

Lines We Love

One of the best parts of being an English teacher is that geeking out over words is actually my job.


Our classroom quote tree.

In our workshop model, attendance is so important.
Students just have to be in class, and there aren’t many times that they can just take off for the bathroom/nurse/guidance/etc. without all of us waiting on them to return.  Because “being there” is so important in this instructional model, my students receive three bathroom passes at the beginning of each semester (yes, just three) to use at their discretion…but they also have opportunities to earn more passes for literacy-related activities.

quote 1

“Because posters are too easy for your sophisticated brain.” –Bonin

One way my students earn passes  is by pulling lines they love from their choice books, their assigned books, from songs, from their own pieces of writing…and even from the random things I say during class that they think are funny.

They write their lines on a green leaf and staple them onto our giant packing-paper tree.  By the end of this year, I imagine that this tree will probably outgrow the bulletin board and expand onto the walls.

(At the end of the year, leftover and hoarded bathroom passes get rolled into a raffle for Barnes & Noble gift cards, so even students who don’t necessarily want or need passes are motivated to help our tree grow!)

The lines they choose to display will make great writing prompts too.  I’m about to do a major whole-classroom move into a different hallway, which will involve taking this tree down, leaving many of these leaves accessible for analysis during our quickwrite time. 

As much as I’m not looking forward to act of moving, I am looking forward to pulling this tree apart, reflecting, and then replanting it in our new classroom.


quote 2

“Anxiety is the cousin visiting from out of town depression felt obligated to bring to the party. Mom, I am the party.” –Explaining my Depression to My Mother: A Conversation


Writer’s Workshop: Inform and Explain

RS typingWe’ve spent the last few weeks running through our second full-press writer’s workshop.  I’ve based most of our writing curriculum around Kelly Gallagher‘s book Write Like This, and all credit goes to him for this prompt and focus.

(Buy this book.  Right now.)

We first looked at Inform and Explain writing with our work around Joshua Dickerson’s poem and #Iwishmyteacherknew.

We talked about how “inform and explain” writing is different than research; it’s all about showing and telling your experience and your own knowledge.

(And it’s the kind of writing that I use the most when complaining and complimenting companies via email and Facebook.)

I was a witness.
From there, I asked my students to brainstorm things that they had seen before.  It couldn’t be something they’d done; it had to be something that they could report on as a bystander.

I shared a list of my own experiences with them, and together, we started to draft a piece around the focus:  I was a witness…

We were going to tell pieces of our own histories.

We spent two periods working on brainstorming and sloppy, “worst drafts ever.”
Some students typed and others were more comfortable with a pencil.  Whatever works for them, works for me.  

Some wrote and finished the first day, spending the next day with their choice book.  Some spaced for the first day and wrote a draft the second.  Some didn’t do much at all…and sat out during our first few days of workshop, finishing their work.

Just like last time, it was hard for me to stand back and let them think, space out, and work at their own pace.  I’m getting better, but it feels absolutely torturous to me.

(Working on my own piece of writing helps with this…a  little.)

Just like last time, somehow it all came together.

Among our topics:  

  • a dog pulling a dishwasher down the stairs
  • a child deliberately peeing in  grocery store
  • a cat sitting on a bed
  • a car accident on a snowy day
  • a drunk aunt using a box of wine as a purse
  • a sister’s suicide attempt
  • a heroin overdose at a party

We stay anonymous to the very end.
As you can gather from the above list, many of these stories were  pretty tough to put out into the universe.  Because of this, my number one rule during workshop is to keep yourself and others anonymous.  We may have guesses, but we’re not guessing.  Names aren’t added to pieces until the very last second.

workshop circle

My view on workshop days.

On our first workshop day, we all brought our (anonymous) drafts to the group.
This time, all pieces were read aloud to the class.

We passed the pieces around the circle, mixing them up until we’d lost track of where ours had landed.

We corrected grammatical and mechanical errors.  Just like last time, we began by sharing out the lines we loved from the pieces.

DetroitAs we listened to the pieces read aloud, students wrote questions for the author on Post-Its.  Afterwards, we passed our notes down to the reader of the piece.

(These Post-Its were anonymous, but won’t be next time.  Students became a little too comfortable with their anonymity, and some questions teetered on the edge of disrespect.)

This was the longest, but most engaging, method of workshopping for my classes.  My students really loved listening to each other’s stories, and definitely took the more serious essays to heart.

What about the students who didn’t want to read out loud?
I read it for them.  No big deal:  We’re assessing writing, not reading or speaking.   Who cares if they don’t read it themselves?

(I altered and stole this read-aloud model from Liz Ahl,  who was my poetry and creative writing professor at Plymouth State University…and  is also a great human and friend.)

JD typing
After our read-aloud workshop, we paused to edit against our feedback.  Students weren’t required to answer every question asked, but they were required to answer all that they felt were relevant to their topic.

This went quickly.  After one period, we were ready to look at a new, still anonymous, draft.

We gathered together in a circle again and looked at the pieces against the rubric.  

This time, I’d learned my lesson from the anonymous Post-Its and required my students to put their names on the work they were assessing.

Together, we went through every category of the rubric, and the editors reflected on each section in a sentence.

Written feedbackThis workshop-generated feedback was more detailed and focused than I could reasonably give on 96 essays, and because of that, their final products were extremely polished.

We took one more day to edit, and then students passed in clean copies (finally, with names).

writing collage
So far, this process has produced Magical Exemplary Drafts.

After two runs through a full-press, whole-class workshop, I can safely say that this method has produced the Best Writing I’d Ever Graded.

Sitting together in a circle, modeling, and talking together has worked better than any other method I’ve ever used to teach writing, including peer and teacher one:one conferencing.  

My students were engaged throughout the whole process because they were able to choose their topic, write from experience, and listen to the stories of others.

I’m not sure I’ll ever give a focused essay question ever again.