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Book Review: Sparks in the Dark by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney

by: Anne Busciacco, Marissa Caldwell, Lauren Foley, Erika Hunsicker, Tom Lang & Dan Lonsdale

sparks in darkNavigating through a maze of students absorbed in their independent reading books, I pause before Ryan. Our second-day-of-school conversation echoes in my mind . . .
“I don’t like to read,” he declared, doubtful seventh grade would change anything.
His friend, Charlie, smirked at him, “That’s because you only read teacher-assigned books.”
Now, four weeks later—after interviewing many texts and abandoning two—Ryan sits nestled in a bean-bag chair, engrossed in Booked by Kwame Alexander. During our last conference, he claimed it as one of the best novels he had ever read.
“ # What child have you seen impacted by a different kind of teaching style?” (79).
In Sparks in the Dark, by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney, you will meet a plethora of  students like Ryan whose lives were forever impacted by the power of choice.

Although a debut novel, the authors’ passion, expertise, and innovation is clear. Travis Crowder is a National Board Certified teacher who currently teaches seventh grade English and Social Studies in North Carolina, and also has a breadth of experience from seventh to twelfth grade. Todd Nesloney is currently an elementary school principal in Texas, who has also taught fourth and fifth grades for several years. The two invigorated educators came together to write Sparks in the Dark with hopes of sparking change within teachers and inspiring them to see the importance of authentic reading and writing experiences for students and teachers.

While these methods of approach are progressive and promising, the authors fall short in providing generally implementable practices. Inherent in this teaching method is the assumed acceptance of the administration, fellow teachers, and parental figures of the children. Furthermore, the means to deal with varied sizes and compositions of classes is not fully developed. However, the authors elaborate well on the concept of their meaningful teaching style, and the way it should function in a properly orchestrated educational system. Furthermore, success stories of student engagement help readers imagine the possibilities in their own classrooms.

In order to promote this engagement both Crowder and Nesloney emphasize a workshop based, “meaningful teaching” approach. This strategy is intended to foster genuine passion for reading and writing by providing “authentic student choice and voice”. Their scope is not limited by discipline, but instead argues for spreading a nurturing, purposeful teaching practice that can translate across courses and fields of study.


Crowder and Nesloney’s meaningful teaching method revolves around a few core tenets, one of the most important of which is choice in material. Student choice is critical to the success of entrenching the value of reading and writing to students. The authors cite how a lack of early developed passion for reading and writing almost guarantees a near drop off of interest later in life. Crowder and Nesloney’s focus on student choice allows for the “building of sustainable love” in students which translates to a lifelong reader that attains a deeper awareness of themselves and the world they live in. This ‘sustainable love’ is accentuated by providing reading choices that highlight aspects of the students, but also introduce the myriad of others not like themselves, or even their friends around them.

The authors reiterate throughout the novel the importance of providing students time to read and write every single day in the classroom. By providing this time we build students abilities, encourage their work as readers and writers, and instill the value of these practices. However we cannot only provide students time, but must also offer them choice for “choice begets ownership” (69); ownership begets engagement; and engagement begets rigorous learning. Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney posit the necessity of a workshop model to make student engagement a reality.

Workshop framework

Nesloney and Crowder see the reading and writing workshop model as their way of “disturbing the universe.” While the authors assume some familiarity with the concept, they do explain that “workshops are based on choice. Students choose their books. Focus is on skill acquisition. Teachers do not lecture; instead, mini-lessons are used, and students are given time to practice the skills taught during the mini-lesson. In writing workshop, writers choose their topics, chasing ideas through poetry, essay, memoir, or short story. The teacher teaches the features of different genres and gives students time to craft and share their writing” (12-13). Nesloney also points out the importance of integrating writing into all classrooms after his own realization that students in his math class struggled to clearly explain the steps of their math problems in writing.

Incorporating the workshop model into classrooms helps students engage with the material and gives them a voice, promoting class discussion and a deeper understanding of the material. Crowder and Nesloney highlight four ways to spark conversations in class: inquiry, turn and talk, action research, and storytelling. By utilizing these teaching strategies, teachers are able to access the benefits of the workshop model.  One of the benefits is the increase in student responsibility and ownership, which leads to higher quality work and students exceeding their own expectations. Crowder and Nesloney explain, “If students own something they will work hard to choose that just-right arrangement of words and images” (69). Another benefit is that teachers are able to give their students the gift of time. Time to read. Time to write. Time to explore new genres and discuss their writing pieces with their peers. The authors explain that if teachers want their teaching to spark lifelong reading, writing, and learning, than they need to provide students with the opportunity to engage in those activities independently in the classroom.

Walk the walk, talk the talk

Throughout their novel, Crowder and Nesloney embody this statement, emphasizing the duty of educators to take responsibility for their teaching by equipping themselves with the proper tools and perspectives they need in the classroom. One of the major aspects the authors stress is the need for teachers to constantly learn from others as professionals and incorporate this learning within their teaching. Crowder and Nesloney highlight the multitude of ways from which educators can learn, including social media, students, other teachers, professional reading, writing, and much more. As the authors state in the beginning of the chapter, “If we expect our students to take learning seriously, we have to show them none of us ever stops learning” (166). Furthermore, Crowder and Nesloney argue that educators as professionals “no longer can claim ignorance” to the opportunities that lie with consistent learning and must find the time to expand one’s horizons and incorporate the lessons learned into the classroom (166).

In addition to the responsibility teachers have in learning from themselves and others, they also have a responsibility to be a role model for students as both readers and writers. Crowder and Nesloney argue that in order for students to foster a love of reading and writing, the teachers themselves must reflect that same love of reading and writing in the classroom for students to witness and aspire toward. From the beginning of the novel, the authors highlight the importance of being a role model, stating, “A teacher must become a guide, a mentor, and an example, demonstrating clearly what it takes to read and write effectively” (37). Additionally, while many educators may cite the impossibility of this role among the various expectations and standards they must follow, both authors believe that it is not only possible, but more beneficial and effective than the traditional approach of reading and writing in the classroom. Whether it is establishing a reading zone in the classroom in which the teacher reads alongside the students or sharing the failures and successes of one’s own writing, Nesloney and Crowder stress that it is imperative for teachers to share their reading and writing experiences with their students.

Imagine a classroom full of Ryans who have recently discovered their love of reading and writing. Will you be the one to spark the excitement for learning within your students?

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