Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Through situations far beyond our control, this past week we had the privilege of seeing just how powerful a little tease can be for a middle school.
"Who is messing with my board?
I didn't change it!"

THE BOOK has been decided for months.  About eight people on the planet know the title, including five within the walls of our school.  Miraculously, it has remained at five.  When we put up the bulletin board this summer in preparation for the first day of school, a part of our collective CRL conscience worried, "Is it too soon?"  We knew we wouldn't be revealing for at least ten weeks.  Are the kids going to get frustrated and just not care?

Since August 30th, the 2014 "title" has read ??? 
On Monday, October 21st, it changed to 9.  Students and staff admitted to Googling "9", which evidently is a book title, but not even close to middle school appropriate.

On Tuesday, it became 8.

This post is about the power of the tease, so just to be clear we never admitted to changing the numbers...it was more fun that way!  We acted just as befuddled as the students (and added a little dose of huffiness too.) 

When a 7 greeted them on Wednesday morning, they knew: the countdown had begun.

Then life intervened and things turned ugly in our little corner of the world.  The principal rallied the troops.  He called in the school psychologist, the adjustment counselor, and...the crazy reading ladies??

"I need a favor, and it has to be fast.  We have to fight negativity with positivity.  Remind the kids why they love coming to school." 

Since we work with the most wonderful faculty in the business, it wasn't difficult to film our epic reveal teaser the very same day.  It was ready for its world premiere on Thursday's VideoTeam News.

As soon as it aired, a mob of news crew students poured into Ms. Cotillo's room positively pleading to know the title.

Mary's daughter is a 6th grader at our school.  At the end of the day, she flounced into her mother's room, flung her bag into a chair, and in her best pre-adolescent voice said, "Thanks, Mom."  Apparently she'd spent the day being grilled, too.  And not just by students!  

(Don't you worry.  The Crazy Reading Ladies have high security standards.  When planning meetings were held, dear daughter was locked in the basement.  Don't look at me that way.  She had food.  Sheesh.)  

Just like that, THE BOOK was all the kids could talk about.  The "book talk" in our hallways went from chatter to pandemonium in under four minutes.

Middle School Tactic #2: Tell them they can't have something. 
which is almost as powerful as
Middle School Tactic #1: Tell them they can't do something.

Messing with middle school minds
To top it off, a fellow faculty member posted QR codes around the building on Friday. Since we have not revealed the title to the faculty, he was not privvy to inside information, which made his "clues" all the more delicious (one went to the public library.) Our poor principal just happened to be scanning one posted outside the cafeteria when sixth-grade lunch was dismissed. He was treated for minor cuts, abrasions, and other injuries sustained from trampling and returned to work several hours later. 

When we left on Friday afternoon, there were students camped out by the bulletin board, waiting to see if we were going to change the number ("Do weekends count?") and then we heard it: 

"I think this is the first weekend I want to go by really fast so I can get to school on Monday!"

"But what does it meeeeean?!?"
I think we may need to retire now.  I don't think you can do better than that.  

Monday morning came and the tension was palpable.  Students compared notes, discussed movie release dates, appeals of different genres.  One boy confessed that he'd created a notebook in which to keep all of his research and predictions.  

On the morning news we made a pretty big announcement.  We narrowed down the pool of potential books from all the titles in the Franklin Public Library to six: Ender's Game, Catching Fire, Divergent, The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, and Romeo and Juliet.  

A super-excited 6th grade teacher (who may or may not have been badgering Mary's daughter) was presented with an envelope.  She opened it on-air and accounced that the 2013-2014 book is....

NOT Ender's Game.  

We were a little worried there might be a riot.  

We have big plans for Friday's reveal, so here's hoping we can keep our heads down low and survive the interrogation tactics for another three days.  We've loved every second of this; it has already been worth it.  On Friday evening we received an email from an eighth-grade boy who couldn't get into his weekend groove because he was so obsessed.  Amid analysis of clues and unadulterated glee, he thanked us for making this happen.

Thankfully, we are literacy soul-mates and can read each other's minds because for moments like this, there really are no words.  We'll just catch the other's eye and shake our heads...and probably have a little cry.

- Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Just for Fun

Sometimes, despite our best planning, we end up with a few minutes at the end of class that need to be filled.  Maybe the kids "got it" sooner than anticipated, or a large percentage are absent, or we sense their frustration level is getting too high to make further pushing productive.  In moments like this, it's helpful to have a few fun activities up your sleeve.   Here are a few of our go-to games.

Akinator:  You can download the app for your smartphone, or you can visit www.akinator.com.  The idea is that you think of a character, and, through a series of yes or no questions, a genie tries to guess your character.  The goal is to stump the genie, and it's really hard to do.  When I use this game in class, I steer the kids away from the SpongeBob Squarepants characters they are wont to suggest, and I nudge them towards literary characters in the stories or novels we've been reading.  I work the controls, read out the questions, and the kids shout out the appropriate answer.  It's pretty much a choral response when the questions are "Does your character wear shoes?"  But when the questions become more subjective, interesting debates arise.  Is Atticus Finch a warrior?  Does Buck fight evil?  Choose obscure characters for your best chance at stumping the genie.  (Akinator got Atticus Finch in about 10 questions, but never did manage to guess Sergeant Major Morris from "The Monkey's Paw.")  The kids love it, and a few have downloaded the app on their own devices.

Black Out Poetry:  Personally, this is my favorite.  You can use it for a whole class period or to keep kids engaged for the last ten minutes before dismissal.  Here's what you need:  old books, highlighters, and black sharpies or markers.  Tear or cut pages out of the books, and have students highlight words or short phrases that can be strung together to paint a picture or tell a story.  Then use the black marker to black out the rest of the page.  What's revealed is the poem.  I have just started playing with color: highlighting words with the same mood in one color, contrasting mood words in another, that kind of thing.  Kids can illustrate or decorate their finished product, or not.  My students love this activity, and they'll often ask to take book pages home so they can make more poems.

Pyramid: Remember Dick Clark and the $25,000 Pyramid?  When teaching the concept of main idea and details, I stumbled upon this activity.  The kids absolutely love it!  Simply generate a few dozen topics (i.e. state capitals, things that are white, things with an alarm, Disney movies) and offer three clues.  A quick tour of YouTube clips will yield all the topics you need.  Not only does this game help with sorting, but I've found that it also develops their visualization skills.  I had given "cement floor, boxes of Christmas decorations, and a furnace" and they couldn't get it.  Once I told them to close their eyes and picture it, they got it.  Yep, things in a basement!

You have five minutes left in class, so go ahead and tell us.  What are the games you play?

Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Summer Reading Celebration

Any day we get to wear our blingy reading shirts is a great day.  Give us two hundred middle school readers, a BINGO cage, and some flying glitter?  Now you understand why we have the best jobs in the world.

Our Summer Reading Celebration is held annually for all students who exceed expectations and read over 1500 pages during summer vacation.  They are the future crazy reading ladies and gentlemen of America, and we shall treat them well.  

Prize Table Numero Uno
In my four years as Reading Specialist, we've had three incarnations of the celebration.  I came into the position to a previously scheduled folk singer ('nuff said), then moved to an ice cream sundae party.  Though it was both budget-friendly and a big hit, we knew it was not the best message to be sending our kids.  As an ELA department, we (and a new federal mandate) decided we needed to celebrate accomplishments without hot fudge and Oreo cookie crumbles.

Book BINGO was born.

We've always had an issue with the name - Summer Reading Celebration is "meh" at best, and Book BINGO sounds downright lame.  We're working on it.

Here's how the Crazy Reading Ladies spent the $500 budget:

$100 on piddly prizes - sunglasses, fancy pens, clipboards, and all manifestations of yellow rubber duck
$400 on books - Scholastic Teacher Store has class sets on sale in early September, and I'm not afraid to pick up "looks like new" used books at libraries or on Freecycle throughout the year to add to my stash 
$35ish on decor - as many balloons as possible, dollar store tablecloths, glitter, centerpieces, etc.

I know.  First of all, you're not reading about the Crazy Math Ladies.  Second of all, you know we need spectacle.  So if we have to dig deep for some extra reading bling, we're going all in.

Besides, once you have a BINGO set, the only cost is the cards themselves - which are dirt cheap.  I think 500 paper cards cost $3.99.

The loud, the proud: the 6th graders
Our Principal is apparently a closet BINGO player and he let me purchase the Cadillac of Cages this year, which kind of makes up for the taunts he yelled my way, leading the kids in jeers of: "Those aren't real numbers!" and "NO ONE HAS THAT!"
Sure, they look sweet and innocent

The parade of 80-something sixth graders invaded the cafeteria first, followed by seventh and eighth.  Brave parent volunteers were a bit taken aback by how quickly the air in the room changed.  Some collapsed into their chairs when the last child left.  Middle schoolers will do that to you.
Representing over 50 books 
read this summer!
If you think tween readers are the quiet, sedentary, non-competitive type, you've never been to Book BINGO.
Within minutes, I had to give The Look to a table of screaming boys who were bashing each other with mylar balloons.

It's about to get crazy.
I didn't help matters by announcing to the packed cafeteria that THE BOOK was in the room.  Kids gasped and pushed themselves out of their seats for a look at the wrapped box.  For twenty-two days straight, we have been asked to reveal our selection.  The kids are desperate.  There has been wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I've been followed into the parking lot twice by a gaggle of girls promising they won't tell anyone.

Isn't that awesome?!

The entire festivus took just over an hour.  We played five raucous rounds of BINGO.  As winners pranced to the prize table, their names were cross-checked with an attendance sheet (you'd better believe it) and they selected both a novelty prize and a brand-new book.  On their way out, they took chalk and signed a banner proclaiming the best book they read this summer.

And then they could visit THE  BOOK.
Not yet...

After they exited the cafeteria, students could approach the table and record their guess on video (one brave, well-protected mother was on paparazzi duty.)  As I called BINGO numbers, I couldn't resist peeking over my shoulder to watch the line of kids waiting to guess the selection.  Some shook the box, others stroked it.  One student believed it all a farce - there was no way we'd have the box out in the open - and declared it a bag of flour.  Some were certain they knew, others were at a loss for words.  After reviewing the footage, we have about five clear "favorites" along with a smattering of other titles.

The Crazy Reading Ladies aren't revealing quite yet.  Watch for that first snow fall...and then, be ready for anything. 

Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary
Survivors of Book BINGO 2013

How do you celebrate your students' accomplishments?  Share your incentive ideas in the comments!