stack of books

Three Books to Shake Up Your ELA Classroom

I read several books this summer to prepare for the 2022-2023 school year, and I’ve rounded up a few favorites to recommend.

1. Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (2020) – Sarah M. Zerwin

Alternative grading methods including standards-based grading, going gradeless, and ungrading have gained popularity in recent years, especially in higher education contexts and in response to the pandemic. As NJ-educator Matt Morone warned me this summer, there’s a rabbit hole of online resources on these topics. After getting a bit lost down that rabbit hole, I found Point-Less to be a helpful introduction to alternative grading refreshingly written specifically for an audience of high school English teachers. Zerwin presents her approach clearly and flexibly, encouraging readers to take what works for them and ignore the rest. One suggestion that resonated with me is to have students write reflectively at the end of a semester or school year about their learning, citing their own classwork as evidence of their growth.  [ . . . ]  Read More

Embracing Visual Notetaking: A Review of McGregor’s Ink & Ideas

I’m thrilled to share my review of Tanny McGregor’s wonderful book, Ink & Ideas (2018), featured in the current issue of English Journal.

Ink & Ideas is an indispensable guide for any teacher looking to introduce or enrich sketchnoting (aka visual notetaking) in their classroom. Read the full review for several examples of how McGregor uses visual notetaking to enhance “engagement, comprehension, and thinking” across P-16 classrooms and subject areas.

Here’s an quick excerpt from my review posted on Twitter:

via @TobeyAnt

To learn more about my experience teaching sketchnoting and to access my favorite instructional resources for visual notetaking, check out the following posts:

Be sure to follow the author on Twitter @TannyMcG for regular doses of sketchnote inspiration!

via @TannyMcG


Congratulations to Tanny McGregor on such an important achievement!

Thank you to English Journal for allowing free access to my article.

And special thanks to “Books-in-Action” column editor Nicole Sieben for editorial support throughout the publication process.

Access the full July 2019 English Journal issue, here.

Teach High School or Higher Ed? Want Free Books?

When I returned from a recent conference with boxes of books and swag, some of my colleagues asked how they could score their own free books for course consideration.

Several publishers will provide educators with free copies of their books to examine and consider for adoption in a course or curriculum. Many books are sent by mail, but some are offered as e-books. Publishers have their own requirements, but many require that educators sign up with a school email address, and some require that books are sent to a school address.

See below for ways that high school and college instructors can request free (and significantly discounted) examination copies. Happy hunting, book lovers!

High School Teachers

W.W. Norton & Company offers free examination copies for high school teachers, searchable by subject area. There are many more gems under their “instructors” tab—especially the section devoted to English. Norton’s regional sales representatives can help teachers navigate their catalogue and find new materials.

Penguin Random House offers low-cost books as examination copies for high school teachers: $3.00 for any paperbacks that retail for under $20, and 50% off for any hardcovers or paperbacks that cost over $20.

K-12 Staff Developers

Guilford Press offers free examination copies to staff developers who conduct trainings for K-12 teachers.

Stenhouse Publishers also offers

free review copies  [ . . . ]  Read More

Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve”

When I spotted the following preview of a discussion thread on NCTE Connects, I had to read more:

Vermont educator Donald Tinney was looking for short companion texts to teach in conversation with The Great Gatsby. I had just finished reading Fitzgerald’s novel with my 10th grade students, and was curious to learn how other educators help students relate its themes to present day.

In the discussion that followed, several educators shared texts and tips (including P.L. Thomas’ post, “The ‘Vast Carelessness’ of White America”).

Among the many treasures shared was a page of resources compiled by Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch. Their 2017 NCTE presentation referenced an article on “The Great Gatsby Curve,” an economic trend that shows a relationship between parental economic mobility and income distribution. Posted on an archived page of Obama’s blog, the article features an animated graphic posted on Tumblr with a graphical representation of the curve. Here is a screenshot of the Tumblr graphic:

While I await a copy of Fisch and Chenelle’s upcoming book on teaching Gatsby with informational texts, I created my own lesson around “The Great Gatsby Curve” to prompt students to think about these contemporary economic issues.

Considering “The Great Gatsby Curve” Lesson: Parental Income and Economic Mobility

First, I asked students to analyze their first impressions of the website itself ( The following note appears at the top of the website: “This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.”

Then, I invited students to watch and read the animated graphic on “The Great Gatsby Curve.” The animation progresses quickly, so students watched it once or twice before writing down their interpretations of the graph. Eventually, I captured the screenshot image above.

After students wrote an interpretation of the graph in their own words, I asked them to write responses to a series of questions I raised aloud:

  • What is your opinion about this economic trend?
  • What does this economic trend mean for you? How might it apply to your life?
  • Does this trend hold true in your family? For example, did your grandparents’ income determine your parents’?
  • Shift your perspective. How would you feel if your parents had significantly lower or higher incomes?
  • What factors do you think contribute to this economic trend?
  •  [ . . . ]  Read More

    Teens and Libraries Reunite via Virtual Field Trips

    At the beginning of the school year, I asked my students to obtain or recover their public library cards. Since my students commute from several towns, this involved three local libraries. I hoped the assignment would encourage students to take advantage of the many resources available through the library.

    I asked students to upload a photo of themselves with their library cards, and offered additional points for photos that conveyed “a love of reading.” Here are some examples (shared with permission).

    One student submitted a pair of photos of himself as a five and fifteen year old getting his public library card. Astonishingly, the photos were taken on the exact same date, ten years apart.

    A handful of parents emailed me unsolicited positive feedback about the assignment, including this short note (shared with permission):

    “I love that you asked each of the students to get their library cards. When my daughter and her siblings were younger, we spent a lot of time at our library. When we went to the library the other day to get her card, she seemed nostalgic. She gave herself a little tour and got reacquainted with the layout. I reminded her that the library can be a place that she can study and take out books not just for schoolwork but for pleasure.”

    When I spoke with a local library director, she shared the joy she experienced from seeing formerly active library patrons all grown up—they spent their early childhoods at the library, she explained, but then lost interest. She was thrilled to see them returning to the library to rediscover its offerings. Together, we realized we could seize the opportunity to highlight the resources that could appeal to young adults.

    While I could not get permission to take my classes on field trips to three nearby libraries, I thought a virtual “field trip” would help students learn about these spaces and their resources from the comfort of our classroom. Now that they had their library cards, this was a chance to give students a taste of what the cards could offer.

    The Logistics

    I reached out to our three local libraries, and the librarians each generously agreed to give a 10-15 minute talk and virtual tour. I asked them to speak about shared services available to students from all of the local towns, as well as their library’s unique resources and special events. They could take a few questions, and conclude with a brief tour of the spaces (via web cam).

    I created a Google doc chart for planning purposes so the presentations themselves would not overlap. I scheduled the library visits to occur once per week for three consecutive weeks, which meant that each librarian gave five, fifteen-minute presentations over the course of one day.

    My school computer has a built-in webcam, but I requested a bigger, external one from our IT department so I could position it to capture more of the classroom at once. I conducted the calls over Google Hangouts.

    Our Virtual Field Trips

    The librarians were all friendly and eager to field student questions. They spoke enthusiastically about print and digital resources, patron services (e.g., free museum passes, lendable Kindles), and special events. Students followed along by referring to information on a print handout that the librarians had shared in advance.

    Students enjoyed seeing the different teen rooms and quiet spaces in each branch, and several mentioned that they thought it could be a good place to work independently or meet with small groups. They were excited by upcoming events, such as the holiday cookie contest and a make-your-own bath bomb class.

    The teen room of a local library our class visited virtually.

    Exploring Additional Resources

    After we hung up the calls with the libraries, we looked into some of the resources together. We went on RBdigital Magazines, a database that offers digital issues of current, popular magazines. Students were pleased to learn that many of their favorite titles can be accessed on their school computers. Another day, we tested out, a subscription website that pairs students with live tutors.

    We also played around with Mango Languages, an online language learning resource. We learned how to say some simple phrases in Korean, American Sign Language (ASL), and Pirate.

    Students were astonished by the many resources available through their card. “This is all free?” several asked.

    We also looked at Google Street View for each library to give students a sense of where each library is located. Several remarked that they hadn’t realized the library was “right there.”

    Student Reflections

    Here are few reflections from students on the library visits:

  • “It was a great experience to see all the different libraries near me. I learned a lot about each of them and learned all the cool activities that go on.”
  • “I liked that we were able to see what each of the libraries looked like during the tours and we were able to see what resources each of the libraries offered.”
  • “I liked to know that we could get museum passes. This is beneficial to me because I think it would be a fun thing to do with my friends.”
  • “I was very interested in going to the bath bomb making class.”
  • “The library visit has inspired me to learn sign language, which I had never thought of doing.”
  •  [ . . . ]  Read More

    Get Your Public Library Card!

    The start of the school year presents an opportunity to encourage a new group of students to fall (or stay) in love with reading.

    To kick off our yearlong independent reading unit, my students are signing up for library cards at the local library. As a homework assignment, students will obtain (or dust off) a library card, and snap a photo of themselves holding their cards. After talking it over with students, I decided to offer additional points for photos that convey enthusiasm for reading. Check back for an update of student photos posted with permission.

    Conveniently, the American Library Association (ALA) has declared September “Library Card Sign-up Month,” and they offer a full press kit of resources for educators and libraries to use to promote their services. While I suspect many of my high school students have outgrown the ALA’s superhero library month promotional campaign, I think they will be interested in the Library Value Calculator. This online tool will help students consider how much money they can save by using the library. When I tested out the calculator myself, I learned that I used over $1,000 worth of services at my local library this summer! (Thank you, BCCLS!)

    To promote reading and launch the independent reading unit, I offer a few introductory experiences:

  • I encourage students to participate in a reading program run by our school librarian, Julie Goldberg, called “Outstanding Books Challenge.” The program challenges students to read several books from ALA’s list of Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners. Titles from the list that Julie features in a school assembly remain in high demand throughout the year. This is where those library cards will come in handy. Last year’s student favorites included The Poisoner’s Handbook, Code Name Verity, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts.
  • Our librarian will visit my classes to teach students how to check out a book from the school library, how to order a book through the local library system, and how to use tools like databases and book awards lists to find books of interest. She calls this presentation “How to Find a Book You’ll Love.” We may also take a trip to the school library to show students the lay of the land.
  • Students create accounts on Goodreads, where they will build virtual “to-read” bookshelves to plan out their reading, rate and review books they’ve read, and read reviews from classmates and other members of the site.
  • Students will be able to claim open badges to recognize their reading accomplishments.
  •  [ . . . ]  Read More

    What Reading Looks Like

    When we think about what reading looks like, we might picture someone curled up with a good book in a comfy chair with a hot beverage nearby. We might picture someone perusing the news over breakfast, or reading an e-book during the morning commute.

    If you ask someone outside of the education field what teens’ reading looks like, however, they might not picture anything. For example, when I mention to someone that I’m researching teens’ reading, many lament, “kids these days don’t read anymore!”

    But they do! And I have photos to prove it. Here are a few photos of reading in my classroom.

    1. Students choose their own texts.

    We still read some classic texts (e.g., Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet), but that’s not all we read. Even when reading classics, students connect the books to contemporary events and research they seek out themselves.

    My students select independent reading books and read books of their choosing throughout the year.

    The top student picks in the 2016-2017 school year (clockwise): Sold, The Rape of Nanking, The Poisoner’s Handbook, Steal Like an Artist, Nothing to Envy, Fangirl, Bossypants, Moneyball


    Students take suggestions from YALSA’s list of “Outstanding Books for the College Bound” and the NoveList database. They create virtual bookshelves and groups on Goodreads, write reviews, and share recommendations. (Read more about independent reading and student book clubs in my classroom, here.)

    2. Teens read and compose print and digital texts.

    As Turner and Hicks (2015) argue in Connected Reading, the question of print vs. digital texts in the classroom is not about “either/or.” It’s about “both/and.” My students encounter a variety of texts, both print and digital. Rather than insisting they read or write in a specific way, I demonstrate options, and invite them to choose the best tool for their task.

    The class reads a digital text (a “visual autobiography”) crafted by one student to introduce himself to his peers.
    A student reads “Bartleby, the Scrivener” on his tablet computer, annotating with a stylus.
    A student watches a short video for his research project on bionic limbs.

    3. “Whole class” reading looks different each day.

    Sometimes, students sit in a circle (or in small groups) and discuss a book that I assigned.


    Other times, students read aloud in class.

    Wearing dollar store props in front of “scenery” on the screen, students act out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

    On designated independent reading days, students sit where they’re most comfortable. At back-to-school night, I asked parents to donate any furniture or items to help me create a cozy reading space in our classroom. Thanks to their generosity, we have a comfortable reading area with folding chairs that students move around the room.

    Our cozy reading space made possible thanks to donations and student input.

    Students also exchange reading recommendations virtually. My senior class created Pinterest boards this spring to organize and share online articles across disciplines.

    Class Pinterest
    A screenshot of the class’s shared Pinterest boards. These are the topics that 12th graders thought would interest them. (Not pictured: “Science & Medicine” and “The Future”)

    What does reading look like in your classroom?

    Let’s look at reading across grades and subjects. Please comment below or share classroom photos (with permission).

    Share your photos with the hashtag #teensreading!

    Students’ Writing Goes Viral

    The search for an assignment that makes second-semester seniors want to read more is like the hunt for a unicorn—a noble quest that’s likely to fail.

    But this year, my students and I captured the unicorn with a project that invited them to research the benefits of reading and share their findings with a global audience.

    Over 1000 people read my seniors’ writing over a three-day period this month. And after the assignment’s conclusion, several students reported that they read more now than ever before.

    In early February, we tweeted out this student-created digital flyer, which contains links to my students’ individual blogs, since visited by readers worldwide. Each student’s blog post describes a specific benefit of reading.

    My blog was visited 17 times today! And one of my readers is from the U.K.! – a 12th grade student

    I’ve included a photo of the top of the digital flyer here, but you can view the full flyer on Smore.



    How They Went Viral

    1. They created content that their audience values.
    2. They packaged that content in a manner that would reach and appeal to their intended audience.

    The “Reading Reasons” Assignment

    Inspired by an assignment Kelly Gallagher describes in his book Reading Reasons (2002), I asked students to investigate the research-based benefits of reading.

    My version of the assignment had several stages, summarized briefly below. (For the full details, see this assignment sheet.)

    1. Select a persuasive contemporary article about the benefits of reading.
    2. Read and annotate the article carefully in order to lead a discussion about your chosen “reading reason” with your classmates.
    3. Write a blog post about your “reading reason” that incorporates peer feedback from the class discussion.
    4. Promote your blog post via Twitter using our class hashtag: #SESNH.

    My not-so-secret agenda was for the assignment to expose my students to the many benefits of reading and to inspire them to read more.

    Matching Medium to Audience

    After students finished the “reading reasons” discussions, I invited the class to consider how to best collect their findings to create a final product (e.g., a classroom poster, a digital product). They decided that the best way to share their work would be to create a visually-appealing, digital collection of their writing that they could share via social networks.

    They collectively explored a variety of digital tools on a wiki created by Troy Hicks. At this point, I invited students to participate in the following ways:

    1. A small group of students volunteered to create the final product over a few class periods using Smore.
    2. Another group of students researched different Twitter groups they thought would be interested in reading their work.
    3. A third group of students chose to use the class time to read silently. Huzzah!

    Unanticipated Challenges

    This is not to say that the “reading reasons” assignment was met with total enthusiasm. Though I’d hoped to scatter these discussions over several weeks, unforeseen schedule changes meant that some weeks, students participated in consecutive days of “reading reasons” discussions. Some students complained that we were doing too much talking about reading and not saving enough class time to actually read.

    Others struggled to convince their peers that reading was valuable.  The more reluctant readers in the class responded to these presentations repeatedly with comments like, “Yeah, we know reading is important, but we just don’t want to do it.” At times, student discussion leaders didn’t know how to respond to their peers when asked for information beyond the scope of their research.

    And clearly, as their English teacher, I was not without bias. I tried my best to limit any interjections during their discussions, but sometimes, I couldn’t help myself.

    I worried if the assignment was doing more harm than good when a student candidly shared a disheartening discovery: “I think this assignment is actually making me want to read less.”

    When I recently asked him for permission to share his comment in this blog post, I also asked him to explain it further. He said he’d endured years of teachers reminding him of the importance of reading, and he’d thought he’d outgrown the topic. He couldn’t believe that I was not only furthering the tradition of English teachers past, but upping the ante by forcing him to research it himself. However, I took it as a victory when he shared that in the past, no one had explained the benefits of reading, and that he did learn several specific ones from this assignment.

    Feedback from a Global Audience [ . . . ]  Read More