When I Was the Greatest: Jason Reynolds


Jason Reynolds is a very character centered author.  His story When I was the Greatest centers around some amazing characters.  Allen a.k.a. Ali is a very down to earth young man who understands sometimes you have to do, what you have to do in order to take care of family.  His dad teaches him this while his mother teaches him that there is no bond stronger than blood.

Roland ‘Noodles’ James would often act out getting himself into trouble.  And though he constantly looked out for his brother, Ricky ‘Needles’ James, it was seldom needed even in the harsh streets of Brooklyn.   Ricky has Tourette’s Syndrome and would often blurt out inappropriate things.  Noodles was the only person always tripping about Needles.  Despite the head swipes, Noodles was super-protective over his brother, and paranoid that people were laughing at him”(17).

My students could get a great deal from this book.  They could explore the bonds of brotherhood and friendship that often have a darker side such as Noodles blaming Needles for his father leaving due to his condition.  Or they could discuss how teens would likely feel the same as the boys and try to get into the party for social gains.

My students could learn empathy for a person with a disorder or for the family of that person.  They could learn compassion from Doris as she taught Needles how to knit to occupy his body and mind and find relief from Tourette’s.

I think it would be interesting to have my students try to honestly answer if they would act more like Ali or Noodles at the party during the fight and why they think that they would be like that character.  Why do they think each character acted as they did?  Would they stick up for Needles or try to talk their way out of a fight?  Would they be able to raise above the violence of the party, of the city around them?

Reading Research Project

New to the field of education I have several questions about how to accomplish goals set for my students in order for them to be successful in their continued education and as citizens of the community I share with them.  It seems that there are no concrete answers from the sources I have read in the past.  There are just vague ideas that don’t seem to be supported by numbers but rather by good intentions.  I am aware that the road to hell is paved with good intentions so I need to find concrete answers to help my students.  I cannot simply hope for the best based on outdated or ineffective practices.  The primary question that remains is: How can I assure that my students can transition from 7th to 9th grade mastering as many of the Common Core State Standards by which both myself and my students are evaluated?

There are 84 Common Core State Standards (CCSS) between 7th an 8th grade.  Many of the standards have multiple bullets and all of them contain the ambiguous language of a politician that gives no actual stance on anything.  I reviewed some of the reading and language standards with my counterpart at my Jr. high school and we had a difference of opinion about nearly every other standard based upon the language used describe what we require our to students master.  It was a frustrating eye-opener to say the least.

Over the past 30 years researchers have suggested that reading volumes of books in independent reading helps students to increase both fluency and comprehension, yet, school systems fail to follow the research and teach archaic practices that often persuade would be readers to conform to a system of assimilation where test taking skills that reflect the process of elimination of easily – teacher-friendly – scored assessments supersede one’s ability to think critically.  At the same time teachers are pressured to create and defend scores and grades that represent student reading abilities.

What seems to be the result are a series of activities that can be mass produced and scored on a simplistic rubric.  The work book/sheet becomes the easiest means for a teacher to evaluate a student even though workbooks/sheets nearly completely skip upper level Bloom’s and Webb levels.  Essentially, kids are not being taught how to think critically because there is no room for critical answers to simplistic questions on short fill in the blank pages.  We seem to be skipping the important steps.

So what works?  Well the research supports independent reading.  Children that allowed to select their reading materials are more likely to become life long readers.  They are more likely to continue reading during the summer months where many other students fall behind at the rate of nearly one grade level every two years (Pearson 175).  With this slide in maintained reading level by the time students enter middle school many read at a 3rd-4th grade level.  What does this mean?  Well “60 percent of America’s inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of al juvenile offenders have reading problems” (celebratesmart.org).  Essentially, in order to standardize grading and instruction we are creating criminals.  This coupled with the loss in tax revenue and the increase in social services is crippling our nation.  Does independent reading matter?  I’d say.

According to Coleman and Pimentel, “… texts should appeal to students’ interest, and should, at the same time, cultivate their knowledge base along with a joy of reading” (Pearson,171).   We need to offer our students texts that actually interest them while pushing them to increase the difficulty of the texts that they read.  We cannot rely on text books with a mixture of suggested pre-approved questions and answers to excerpts of the same texts that students didn’t want to read 30 years ago.

Rural students are less likely to continue reading after school due to diminished value placed upon reading (yalsa.ala.org).  In smaller communities such as mine there is less value placed on reading than creating a solid work ethic required to operate and maintain ranches and farms.  Libraries are more scarce in rural settings and often have limited hours of operation which further contributes to the already diminished value and poverty also compounds the lack of interest.

Yalsa.ala.org noted that students in rural areas are most likely to become life long readers if they are permitted independent reading in a media of their choosing.  Books cannot be the only answer.  We must use digital media along with magazines and newspapers to bring our students to reading.  We cannot wait for them to discover it on their own because it is usually too late for many.  The high school and college drop-out rates along with the ever rising prison population prove this every year.

We need to lead our students to as many troughs of reading water as possible.  We need to increase the value of reading in our society so that students will be encouraged to read at home.  Scholastic.com  says that, “…independent reading, both at school and at home, builds successful readers. What’s more, the research shows that giving students a say in what they read is key.”   We need to get them reading and keep them reading at all costs so that their skills increase.  As student reading levels rise they also learn to write more effectively.  Using independent reading texts as mentor texts for writing will increase both student engagement and student productivity.  In looking at CCSS, it seems that nearly all of the reading and language standards can be met by having students select texts and responding to them answering higher level Bloom’s and Webb questions.


“Open a World Of Possible | Scholastic.” Open a World of Possible. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. <http://www.scholastic.com/worldofpossible/&gt;

Pearson, P. David, and Elfrieda H. Hiebert. Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. Print.

“SMART-Infographic.” SMART-Infographic. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. <http://www.celebratesmart.org/reading-is-critical-infograph/&gt;

“You Are What You Read: Young Adult Literacy And Identity in Rural America.” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults. N.p., 2015. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2015/04/you-are-what-you-read-young-adult-literacy-and-identity-in-rural-america/#more-302&gt;

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass: Meg Medina

It is unfortunate that in every town, and in every school, there is a Yaqui Delgado.  There is always a bully.  (I feel Meg Medina fully understands this.)  Worse than having a bully is knowing that society continues to nearly ignore the problem of bullying.  In my short time as an educator, I have seen bullying occur in every corner of the educational system.  I have seen Kindergartners use physical dominance to establish a social hierarchy.  I have seen students fight other students.  I have seen students belittle and attempt to physically harm teachers.  And, astonishingly, despite all of these things being recorded and reported very little repercussion occurs to the bully and the victim is left with nothing but mounting fear.

Why do we allow this to happen?  Are we not supposed to protect all of our students?  Sure we must protect people from false accusations but should that trump protecting those that need aid?  It almost seems that it is better to be the bad guy at times.

Anyhow, this book covers a great deal that students can connect to.  There are students in my Jr. High that hold down jobs, participate in sports, and earn straight A’s.  Many others can relate because they come from single family homes.

I hope that none of my students never experience an attack like Piddy suffered from Yaqui, but I hope even more that this book can help them recognize all of the things that could have been done that were not to help Piddy.  Her neighbor did nothing but watch.  Piddy refused to let her family friend tell her mother.  Ma did not challenge the story about Piddy falling down the stairs.  Yaqui’s friends could have stopped Yaqui from hurting Piddy and ultimately, herself.  They could have refused to support her actions by encouraging her and recording the fight.  Everyone that saw the video could have done something to help Piddy.

In the end, it only takes the courage of one person to change the life of another.  I hope that my students can take on life like responsible person.  A person that would have helped Piddy.

Book Love: Chapters 5-6

Chapter 5:  Book Talk

For me this could be the most important chapter in this book.  After all, how do you convince a non-reader to pick up a book.  You can’t just say, “Do it, it will be okay.”  By the time my students enter my room they may be several years behind the expected reading level leaving them frustrated and willing to settle for a lack of a reading life.  “It’s too hard!” has become the mantra of these students.  They are not going to read anything unless they want to read it.

Will the book talk be the answer?  I hope so.  I thought about how to sell reading to some of my students.  I like Kittle’s approach.  As I have read books over this summer, I have made notes while reading some and gone back to make notes for others.  I’ve tried to remember my favorite parts without giving away spoilers and marked pages to read aloud to give my students a glimpse inside.

I have loved every book that I have read this summer and get excited with the prospect of selling on of these gems to a non-reader via the book talk.  I’ve also thought long and hard about how to create learning and writing moments for each text.  It was amazing to read her student responses to Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.    I can only hope that my own students will be so consumed with their own work to decide as a class to try an activity all on their own.  I found a great resource at http://nancykeane.com/booktalks/default.htm that has several book talk examples and ideas to help generate student interest.

Chapter 6: Conferences

The conference seems to be the essence of the classroom.  In the conference, the teacher is able to assess students understanding, reading and comprehension skills, and is able to provide motivation, strategies, and support for every student in a one on one relationship.  This exchange builds report with students and makes their own development more likely because they have a vested relationship with the teacher.

I like that Kittle breaks down the primary goals for different types of conferences.  Clearly this makes the conferencing more fluid and able to adapt to each student’s needs as they arise.  Helping each student one on one will create readers.  It is in the conference that we can sink our hooks into our non-readers and truly help them become readers through our own excitement for what interests the student.  We can show them that their reading isn’t about checking boxes and answering questions about what they very likely consider irrelevant topics in their own lives.

Book Love: Chapters 7-9

Penny Kittle’s last three conventional chapters in Book Love are the core ‘How to’ chapters of the book.

Chapter 7: Responding to Reading

In this chapter, Kittle brings forth several writing exercises that demonstrate a student’s comprehension of the text without involving quizzes or essays.  I like how she models the question response and has her students write her letter about the books that they are reading.  These letters are not that time-consuming and demonstrate higher level thinking skills.  Encouraging students to support their thinking with evidence from the text helps students to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.

I really liked how she has students respond to passages in a book.  It encourages students to find topics on their own and to quote/cite from their books.  This leads to the students answering the essential higher level thinking questions: What I think; What this says about the book; What this says about the world.

Chapter 8: Nurturing Interdependent Readers in a Classroom Community

Who knew that putting a simple label on a notebook of and title upon it to represent a big idea in literature could so easily turn into a multi-annual writing activity for students to share their reading and work on their writing skills at the same time.  I am totally borrowing this idea.  In these notebooks students can reflect on their own reading and learn about how others may notice things in the same material that they themselves have read.

I like the quarterly reflections where students look back at their reading to acknowledge their accomplishments and to set goals for the future.  I don’t think that many students are given the time to reflect upon their learning and to see how they have grown outside of a letter grade.

Having students group to establish a system for ranking books and setting goals seems like a very effective way to have students value their own accomplishments and desire to meet the goals set upon them by themselves and their peers.

Chapter 9:  Creating a School Community

I wish that I could convince my small district to create a 20 minute per day reading time as Kittle discusses.  It would be great if that were to happen but the reality is that I feel I would get a wall of opposition from teachers that either do not value independent reading or are too worried about trying to cover curriculum — even when they claim to understand that covering a book from cover to cover does not teach any subject.

Currently our district mans the public library during the summer months to try to keep the community reading in the off months.  Sadly, hours have been cut down to four hours a day and the summer reading program has been reduced to one day.  I have personally been to the library dozens of times in the last few months.  I have only seen one person, that did not work in the library, one time this summer.  Our community does not seem to value books.  I suppose this will be my biggest challenge over my career — changing the value of books in my community.  I suppose I will have to take Kittle’s advice and meet them where they are at.

Book Love: Chapters 3-4

One of the biggest ideas that I will walk away from these chapters is that “good teaching is based not on a system but on a relationship” (35).  This quote stuck with me because it is pretty much what brought me to teaching.  I understand that the system may not be broke, but it is in dire need of repair.  I think what we all need to consider is that no one person is the same as the next.  We have had embraced difference, as long as it is not too different, yet we still take the same approaches to education.  We expect kids to care about going to school to get a job and excel while contributing to society but we seldom take the time to build a relationship with our students.  The students seldom care about education without reciprocation from teachers who genuinely care for their development.  Meanwhile many teachers complain about class sizes because of work-load, not because of relationships with students. I think we can bridge the gap with every student be taking the time to care enough for them to suggest paths for them to learn the skills they need to tackle new challenges. I could envision about half of my eighth grade class as Keith from the Nudging One Reader section.  It is not that I have hellions.  I have great kids, they just only do the work that they actually HAVE to do.  If they can fake it… they will. I loved the chapter “Opening Doors into Reading.”  I thought it was great how she had each door represent a trait or book type that every reader needs to discover, especially struggling readers.  Pairing each door with a suggested reading was excellent.  I learned a great deal and made a giant wish list of books to try and pass along to my administration.

I think I am going to have my students sign out books on a Google Document so that no one can sign someone else’s name and they will be time stamped.  I hope this may cut down on the number of books that walk away so that I can continue to add to my library.  Although Kittle teaches on a block schedule I will be modeling my classes on her Reading/Writing Workshop schedule from page 57 with some adaptations for the differences in time.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Every so often a book comes along that offers absolute clarity about something you did not necessarily expect to find before opening the cover to discover the wonders within its pages.  Looking over the cover and reading  the quotes on the back led me to believe that I would learn about kids struggling to be recognized and accepted by society.  Sure, the book definitely taught me a great deal about these teens, but the real story of this book is — Courage.

I have been in a war-zone.  I have been shot at, had people try to blow me up, shot at other human beings and tried to blow them up but I was awed by the courage of each of the six teens focused on for this book.  Every day these teens have a struggle that most of us cannot comprehend.  They struggle with identity not in the personality sense but in the sexual sense.  In the gender sense.  There struggles are not clear cut.  It isn’t about liking boys or girls or both.  It is about a sense of ones mental self not being reflected in the mirror.  Having the courage to face that realization and to take the steps to come to terms with and to change ones physical self to reflect ones mental self while society does little but mock those with the shear determination to be whole, like Caitlyn Jenner, or to refuse to accept those that do not identify with a gender like Nat.

I cannot imagine how hard teenage life must be for these kids.  Sure they have guts but I know the ugliness of human nature.  There is an evil that shows itself when mankind cannot come to terms with ideas counter to its belief system.  Bullying is just as bad is it was when I was in school but now-a-days kids can reach whole new levels of bullying via the internet.  I have the utmost respect for these six teens for sharing their stories with the world.

In thinking of teaching this book, I would hope that it may inspire some of my students to have the courage to express themselves.  This is not an easy task anywhere, but it seems even more daunting in a small community.  My students could learn a great deal from these teens from life skills to articulation.  They could also learn a great deal about life by studying the author Susan Kuklin.

Geography Club: Brent Hartinger

There is a lot that can be said about Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club.  It is a quick read and I think that my students could work through the book even if they find themselves uncomfortable with the topic.  I would encourage all of my students to read this book because it illuminates the isolation that some students feel simply for being themselves.  Many students are bullied for being different and fear being bullied so much that they are not willing to share their differences with others.  I can completely understand why students would seek refuge in a club where they can be free to express themselves as they are — not who they pretend to be.  I wish Russel would have seen Kevin for the type of person that he was and would have held more closely to his own friendship with Min.  He got it right in the end I guess but it seemed a little high school drama-ish to me.

This book would be great to help students to understand that everyone is different.  Whether they are a different in size, shape, color, or sexuality every student should be free to express themselves without fear of being rejected by the popular kids.  Yet, every generation/year/class there are distinct cliques where students cannot even look at others without repercussion from the alpha group.  For the lack of a Geography Club and a Russel Middlebrook, my students should read Geography Club to understand that differences should be celebrated rather than feared.  Everyone should fight for the right to be themselves, not a poster-child of what others want them to be.  I would hope that my students would be able to see that even the kids that everyone may feel do not belong, like Brian, have a unique part of them where they are similar in one way or another to everyone.  And, that it is  people like Brian that have the most courage of anyone in the school.

Last year I got to witness two students come together despite there vast differences in popularity because they shared a passion for the card game Yugi-Oh!

Ball Don’t Lie: Matt de la Pena

Matt de la Pena crushed it with this book.  The characters are wonderfully written and the story is excellent.  Again, I am not a basketball fan.  I honestly haven’t watched a full NBA game since Larry Bird and Michael Jordon were both still playing.  I never fell in love with the game.  however, this book conveyed the passion of the athletes in such a manner that I was bummed that it is the off season for the sport.

While reading the book I could see one specific student as Sticky.  This student was very similar to Sticky.  They both have similar quirks and both seem to live for the game.  Whenever Sticky was playing ball I could see my student.  Sadly, when he wasn’t playing ball and we got a glimpse of his struggles in life I could still see my student.  I felt sorry for Sticky, I could easily empathize with him.  I have had a foster brother and have seen kids bounce from house to house by ‘parents’ that do not want them.

There are many issues I could discuss with students.  I could discuss the relationship of stealing from a person versus a store like Dante.  We could discuss topics from ‘Stranger Danger’ to the protecting oneself in a teenage relationship.

I wept when Dante showed Sticky the three rocks and how far they were from the wall.  That was one of the greatest analogies I have seen/read/heard in years.  Unfortunately, it was all too true.  There are ‘unwanted’ things and even people in this world.  There are way too many students like Sticky; students that can only hope to escape their situation in life through a game.

I feel for students like Sticky.  I hope with all of my heart to show students like him that there is more than one option.  School can also be an escape.  Kids can be passionate about math, or science just as much as they can love a game enough to make ten, twenty or fifty free throws in a row.  It is my job as a teacher to get my kids to that free throw line and toss it out there time and time again because I have given them the confidence to build the ability.

I also must develop students like Anh-Thu that already see the success they can achieve inside the walls of a classroom.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend: Erica Wurth

Erika Wurth’s debut as an author was a tough read for me.  It was tough not because of the story, but because of the story…   I can see many of my female students living a life just like Margaritte (I am sure that some do with minor changes here or there).  I am at a total lose as to what I should do with this book.  I loved the relationship she had with her cousin, and the honesty from which it was written.  However, I spent years in the military and I’ve been known to curse with the best of them at times, but the language is brutal and as I read I was distracted by the imaginary complaints from parents seeing the F bomb twice in the first sentence of the book.  I think I would need to talk to parents specifically about the language in this book before recommending it for one of my students.

Having said that.  I can see myself talking to several parents and guardians.  There is simply too much truth in this book to keep it from my students.  There are a plethora of real life problems that my students face that are mirrored in this book.  As Sherman Alexie pointed out in Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, alcoholism is a huge problem for on reservations and is often suffered by those that find a way to leave the reservations as is the case of Margaritte’s father.

Teenage pregnancy is commonplace in Martin.  There were three births to high school girls and fathers last year.  And drugs, I could go on for days about the drug problems my students face.   It is incredibly sad to know that drugs and alcohol have touched the lives of many of students.  I had my students write a minimum of one page typed, per week last year.  Many of my kids would  talk about family members using drugs and alcohol.  They would describe relatives passed out on the street or the sofa.  It broke my heart.  I think this is why this book is so hard for me to get behind.  My students live this stuff.  I don’t know that reading it is necessarily a good thing for all of them but I think it could really put some things in perspective for some of them.

I hate this book and I love this book.  It is a catch 22 in written form.