Skip to content

Posts from the ‘From the Classroom’ Category

From the Classroom: Nonfiction Reading and Research with Choice

Lauren Heimlich Foley

8th Grade English

While I prepared for our nonfiction and research unit, I wrestled with how to balance choice and a required text. Students must read at least one long nonfiction piece by the end of eighth grade. We have four nonfiction titles on our curriculum: Tuesdays with Morrie, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, Phineas Gage, and To Be a Slave. Possibilities emerged: a whole class reading of one text or book clubs grouped by each title. Or, book club options selected by my students, me, or a combination of both? Did I want to launch independent nonfiction reading books?

In the end, I offered these titles but also invited students to choose any nonfiction or narrative nonfiction book. I enlisted the help of our librarian to collect books that met the requirements in our school library, and students browsed at our community library, local bookstores, and Amazon. Sending home a letter to parents and guardians helped students obtain books outside of school.

Students’ nonfiction independent reading book selections revealed a wide range of interests: a variety of historical time periods, true adventures, biographies, autobiographies, self-help books, and current social issues. While most students chose different books, one group of eighth graders decided to read Undefeated and two other groups read I Will Always Write Back as book clubs. Ultimately, choice created engaged students and supported differentiation. The majority of students selected narrative nonfiction texts.

For the first week of the unit, we increased our regular ten to fifteen minutes of daily reading time to twenty to twenty-five minutes. While students read, I conferenced with them as usual, but our discussions focused on the new genre, the facts they were learning, and how authors developed true narratives. By the end of the week, I had spoken with every student at least once. During our whole- class mini-lessons, we further explored craft moves, style, voice, presentation, and messages. Students noticed how their authors implemented a variety of modes to share their content: letters, journal entries, pictures, emails, poetry, crime reports, medical files, text messages, a combination of narrative and informational writing, etc. As students shared exemplar texts, I posted their findings on our learning management system (Canvas) for everyone to see. Students’ independent reading books would later become our mentor texts.

To foster the reading-writing-research connection, I combined our nonfiction genre study with our research study. During the second week, we resumed our ten to fifteen minutes of reading as students brainstormed what they wanted to research and what information they wanted to share. To help guide them, I suggested that their research might relate to their future, a current interest, our community, or their personal life. As with most of the authors and texts they were reading, I wanted students to feel connected to their topics in a way that would ultimately help them to create meaningful and original final products. Additional mini-lessons during the writing process guided students to narrow their topics, select reliable sources, compile notes in a way that worked for them, complete a works cited, include MLA in-text citations or end notes, and present information in an authentic manner.

The final products ranged from historical fiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, graphic novels, comics, sci-fi stories, newspapers, crime reports, magazine articles, scholarly journal articles, web pages, and multi genre pieces. Offering these options helped students and supported them in making decisions beyond text. They considered where their writing might be published, who might read their work, and who they wanted to reach. Their focus on content and mode created a wonderful symbiotic relationship. By fostering creative thinking that occurred outside of the typical research assignment box, students bought into the writing process and were motivated to complete their research and final pieces.

This assignment also prompted me to reflect on my teaching practice. Originally, I imagined students writing narrative nonfiction pieces to align with their books. However, as I listened to my students’ ideas, I had to rethink my initial plan. Joe wanted to write historical fiction that explored the origins of Halloween. CJ hoped to write a sci-fi story about dark matter. Sara voiced her interest in writing letters from a mom to her future daughter during the mom’s pregnancy. Dara, inspired by her grandma’s immigration story, wanted to transcribe an interview and create a magazine article. And, Luke wanted to develop a book chapter on space and time. More and more creative ideas poured in as students became closer to selecting their final genre, and I began to realize that I was limiting and stunting my students’ potential by choosing the genre for them. When I reflected on the purpose of the assignment, I realized that I wanted students to take part in the research process. I wanted them to understand how messy research can be and should be. I wanted them to question their sources and determine what specific information they needed and wanted to share with an audience. I also wanted them to think about how technology could help them as readers, writers, and learners.  Finally, I wanted to help my iGen students explore PowerPoint, Canva, and We Video and learn more about Word: how to change the page orientation, add columns, switch the text wrap on pictures, add background color, etc. The genre did not make or break the standards or curriculum. Students would meet the requirements whether they wrote in a genre of their choice or mine—but this choice made the difference in their work ethic and overall products.

Finally, I asked my students about the length of this unit since it was my first time implementing it. Based on their feedback and my own observations, I extended the writing portion and final submission date to accommodate their needs. Being flexible helped to support their process and quality of work.

I am excited to see how this reading and writing genre study will impact their future choices. Since finishing their narrative nonfiction books, six students have selected another narrative nonfiction book to read and many students are interested in conducting research for their Self-Selected Writing (SSW) Pieces. Two students are even continuing their research and writing as their next SSW.

From the Classroom: Sustaining Independent Reading Throughout the School Year


Colleague, Rita DiCarne recently posted the above image on her Facebook feed. While my students are already familiar with these stats as well as many of the other researched benefits of reading daily, they still tend to hit a lull in their reading motivations at about this time of year. This is why, when I saw Rita’s post, I took the opportunity to copy the infograph and invited my students to tape them into their reading notebooks and write in reflection. Reminders like the one above, when combined with continuous opportunities to explore and discuss new books, help us sustain that energy for daily reading in and out of our classrooms.

Reading reflection prompts: Throughout the year I invite students to pause and think not just about what they are reading, but why they are reading. Some of the prompts below have lead to thoughtful reflection and meaningful conversations:

  • Teacher and writer Kelly Gallagher said, “Reading books helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.” How has your reading expanded and strengthened your thinking? How have you been enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally by what you’ve been reading?reading trends over time.JPG
  • Study the infograph on Children who read for fun every day. What do you learn about reading habits as children age? Why do you think this happens? How can we fight against these stats?
  • “‘Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures,,” cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley is quoted as saying. Literary fiction, in other words, works like a flight simulator, only it trains you to avoid crashing and burning as a human rather than as a pilot.” With this in mind, what training have you gained from your fiction reading so far this year? (Source: New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic)
  • After listening to an interview with Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, reflect on the comparison they make – “these books are used as fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up?” Create a visual of the ways your reading this year has created a road map for you.

Book Flood Activities: I combine these moments of reflection with numerous opportunities to look at and discuss new books throughout the course of the school year. I have discovered it is not enough to merely surround students with lots of varied and engaging reading materials. You have to also give them lots of opportunities to engage with these materials. Below is a brief list of some of the ways I actively immerse students in wading through the classroom book flood:

  • Judge a book by its cover – I enlarge several book covers and give students time to walk around the room and evaluate the books based just on their covers. As you can see from the pictures, many students express a desire to actually read the books based on their assumptions. I keep these covers on display for several weeks so students have visual reminders of books they want to read.


  • Judge a book by its first page – I photocopy the first page of several books and invite students to react to how these books begin. They do not get to see the covers or know the titles or authors until after they have made their judgements. Therefore, their assumptions are based solely on the writing. For each of the first pages pictured below, I had students listen to the audiobook versions, so they were also judging by the voice narration as well.


  • Book displays – I use every surface of my classroom to display books and I regularly change displays based on student interest, reading assignment or activities, new book arrivals, etc. I do this to keep the displays fresh, but also because the books on display do not last long. I also have a rotating display of student recommended reads. I throw a few points towards students for crafting a short write-up and adding to the display. Again, books are rotated in and out of this display, but I keep a running list of all the titles that have been recommended below it.


  • Make my reading visible – Not only do I regularly read and discuss books with my students, but I also keep a running visual of the reading I’m currently doing, the reading I’ve done, and welcome suggestions for the reading I should do next. IMG_20200220_150132.jpg
  • Make their reading visible – we begin all of our class reading time with a reading minute. Borrowed from Kelly Gallagher, students lead these reading minutes by briefly telling us the title of a book they’re reading and describing it in one sentence. Then they read for a minute. No more, no less.

An integral part of each of these book flood activities is I always invite students to take the time to add any interesting titles to their running to-read lists in their reader notebooks. The key to sustaining an independent reading habit is to maintain a healthy list of backup and next reads.

How do you fight the mid-year lull in independent reading motivation? What activities spark your students to want to keep picking up book after book?

From the Classroom: The Gift of the Writing-Reading Workshop

Lauren Heimlich Foley

I have learned that helping my students grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and people is the greatest gift I can give them. Choice has always been the most important factor in achieving this gift, but I identified another component this past fall.

Maire Lu, author of the Warcross duology, shared the following insight in “How Marie Lu Found out that Fantasy Books didn’t have to have White Heroes:”

Lu’s interview emphasized what I had read in research articles and seen in best practice presentations: the need for multicultural literature in the classroom. Although this knowledge had influenced the novels I read, taught, and book talked, I observed firsthand the power that books can have on students when they recognize themselves in the authors and characters they read.

Emika Chen, Warcross’s female protagonist, left an indelible imprint on Cynthia, one of my current eighth graders. The student’s name is a pseudonym. As a seventh grader last year, I watched Cynthia grow into a confident, young woman. She developed her voice as a writer and found the confidence to engage in conversations with her teachers and peers. As a returning eighth grader this fall, she read Warcross. This independent reading book fostered a new level of agency that I had not yet seen.

While our reading conferences appeared standard—discussing characters, setting, plot, theme, and craft—the novel’s setting and the characters’ names became particularly interesting to Cynthia. During one of our early conversations, she wanted to clarify the change in setting from New York City to Tokyo, and she brought up how Emika Chen’s name revealed her Chinese ancestry. She also wanted to look up the name Hideo Tanaka in order to pronounce it correctly.

As an avid reader, Cynthia has read, discussed, and analyzed many books since September 2018; however, Warcross was the first book that she voiced her interest in the novel’s setting and the characters’ race. Her interest moved beyond simply reading the book for enjoyment to investigating Lu’s style. By studying and understanding the craft and decisions of a fellow Chinese American writer, Cynthia found her own agency as a writer. Cynthia recognized herself in both the protagonist and author which inspired her to make similar writing choices. This influence became evident during our short story genre study, for Cynthia’s final piece revealed a correlation between Lu’s novel and her own writing.

In Cynthia’s previous writing pieces and school assignments, she left her characters’ races and stories’ settings as ambiguous. While I never thought much about this writerly decision—and perhaps neither did Cynthia—this changed after reading Warcross. Seeing Lu as an empowered Asian female writer and Emika as the representation and extension of that authority inspired Cynthia to develop her own writing in a similar fashion. In the weeks that followed her reading of Lu’s novel, Cynthia spent much time crafting her latest short story with Asian inspired names: Ayane Hiyori, Kaito, Ruka Kanon, and Chika Ronshaku. Moreover, the details she included such as “sakura hair pin” and “red and gold kimono” provided the reader with context clues to help them understand that the story took place in Asia. Not only did Cynthia incorporate Asian names and cultural details into her short story, but also she developed her main character, Chika, with similar director traits as Emika. The more power Chika possessed the more confident Cynthia became. She used her writing as an opportunity to explore her own agency through her protagonist.

The manifestation of Cynthia’s authority did not stop with our short story unit but continued to grow during the weeks that followed. In November, Cynthia brought in Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection and Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection, two Manga books. This marked the first time that she brought in Manga for independent reading. During our reading conferences, we focused on literary elements and craft decisions, and we explored interesting moves made by Ito in terms of the storyline and artwork. Knowing Cynthia is an artist, I asked her if she would be interested in creating her own Manga for her next Self-Selected Writing Piece. Excited about this prospective idea, she shared her Manga with her table partner. Immediately, the two girls became invested in the project. Together they researched drawing tips, began developing possible plotlines, and sketched character ideas. Additionally, the pair brainstormed character names, settling on Ying and Yang for their twin girl protagonists.

With this new writing piece, Cynthia is now sharing her agency with her peers. She is writing herself into existence and finding her real-life director’s role through her ability to create strong Asian female characters. Lu’s work empowered Cynthia to write and discover her own authority in the world.

Choice enabled Cynthia to select books and authors that reflect who she is, yet the invitation to produce and manipulate language gave Cynthia her power. To facilitate my students’ growth, I must support them as they find their voices. This guidance in tandem with choice become the greatest gift the Writing-Reading Workshop can offer, for it allows students like Cynthia to establish who they are and who they wish to become.

How are you empowering your students in your classroom? Please share below!

From the Classroom: Moving Beyond Lit Analysis

For years I struggled with the need to teach my ninth grade students how to write a standard five-paragraph literary analysis. I knew I was responsible for moving them up to their future English classes with this skill, but it was also torturous teaching the formulaic approach to this writing task.  As we moved through the lessons, students eyes would glaze over, my eyes would glaze over, and we all generally lost interest in writing. To make modeling easier, the essay prompts were all dictated by me in response to texts also selected by me. The result was bland, repetitive writing that lacked creativity or thought. This also made grading torturous.

Then, a few years ago when I started the C3WP approach to teaching argument and research writing, I experimented with applying this method to literary analysis writing as well. Accordingly, rather than reading one text together as a class then writing an essay analyzing some literary element within that text, we started to read many texts centered on a common motif and write in short bursts about the texts daily. After we had read and discussed around a topic for a while, we would revisit the texts as a whole and ask ourselves “so what?” These responses turned into a literary analysis that was developed after many days of thinking and pulled from several texts. As a result, the writing process and lessons got a lot messier, but the engagement and thinking grew exponentially.

Around the same time I started experimenting with this new approach to teaching literary analysis writing, I stumbled across this quote from Kelly Gallagher:

Reading helps us to enter the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others. We temporarily leave our world for theirs, and when we return, we hope our thinking will be expanded and strengthened. We hope to be enlarged intellectually and/or emotionally.

Now, whenever my students are gearing up to write a formal literary analysis, I share these words with them and prompt them to write about how the texts have enlarged them intellectually and/or emotionally. This prompt has much less structure than previous writing prompts that read something like “How does the plot development of this story communicate theme?” or “Identify a dynamic character and explain how their change influences the downfall.” As a result the thinking and writing is all over the place and the students are the ones putting in the hard work, with me there in the background to confer and support them along the way. I still model how I would approach the writing task, but my model often varies greatly from their writing and only serves as a support rather than a strict structure.

For example, we are just wrapping up a unit in which we studied a series of pieces dealing with the transitory nature of home for many people. While digging into this idea, we thought about and discussed a variety of texts: a poem called “Home” by Warsan Shire, a chapter from The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, a short documentary called “Border Purgatory” from The Atlantic, and a book called Dreams and Nightmares: I Fled Alone to the United States When I was Fourteen by Liliana Velásquez. Students were also invited to find and read texts dealing with the topic on their own and to write and reflect on their own personal experiences with home.

The following is how one student, a recent immigrant from Venezuela and an emerging English language learner, introduced his essay:

sample intro paragraph 1.JPG And here is the introduction from another student in the same class:

intro 2.JPG

Both writers have made insightful observations and crafted well-written introductions to their essays. Rather than the dread I used to feel at taking home a batch of essays to grade, I am excited to read these and to see what everyone else’s takeaways are.

What are some ways you move your students beyond the basic literary analysis?



From the Classroom: Happy Picture Book Month!

While I use picture books all year long in my high school classroom, it is a happy coincidence that I use them almost daily during the month of November – picture book month. They make a more regular appearance this month because this is when we shift our focus to a short story unit and picture books are ideal for introducing students to literary elements and easing them into literary analysis.

I start the unit with a fun trip down reading memory lane by putting picture books on display all around the room and asking students to share their earliest reading memories. The excitement is palpable as students giddily share memories of gathering on carpets, or signing books out of libraries, or laying side by side with a parent and a good book. This year I used this article to prompt the sharing and had students reply with a classroom “tweet” on our discussion board.

After our discussion, students were excited (literally racing) to Read more

September Snapshot: Flexible Seating and Classroom Management

By Nicole Coppola

How can flexible seating be utilized to support classroom management? This September, I made some positive changes by incorporating flexible seating into my 6thgrade writing classroom.  The writing workshop model requires students to “come to the writing area” for instruction. Last year, students were dragging chairs to the instruction area from all over the room, creating chaotic transition times.  

Through a grant for flexible seating, from my district’s parent association, I purchased “Bolmen” bathroom step stools from IKEA, eight blue and eight white.  With the help of one of my district’s literacy coaches, I mapped out a routine and a seating chart for the transition to the instruction area. Designated students unstack stools and move them to the center of the instruction area, surrounded by benches and chairs.   The transitions have become calm and efficient routines. 

The IKEA stools also provide the students a choice to make their independent writing space more comfortable.  Because the stools are only about 10 inches tall, they are versatile.  Some students sit on the stools, lean against them, or use the stools as little desks while sitting on the carpet.  During partner activities, my directions are clear and simple, “The students on the blue stools share first. The students on the white stools listen.”  Student helpers stack stools at the end of each class.  Flexible seating has made a positive difference in my writing classroom.