Monday, October 12, 2015

Extreme Library Makeover: Part 1

Seventeen months ago we came home from ILA 2014 and bounced into our Principal's office.

"We went to this session, and this woman took her school's underused library and turned it into a literary cafe. And there are comfy chairs! And colors! And books on display! And can we do this? We can totally do this! Let's DO THIS!"

He smiled, and nodded, and - we're pretty sure - pressed that magic button which summoned the secretary to rescue him with some sort of emergency phone call.

"The answer is yes, but not yet. Put it on your radar for next year."

So the CRL did something we hardly ever do: we waited.

Before: Kids love rows! Not.
We have a gorgeous library. It's located on the second floor of our recently-renovated building and boasts high ceilings, carpeted floors, and lots of windows. The only thing that's missing is a librarian. And students. Like so many school districts, our town eliminated the librarian position years ago. In place of a full-time librarian is an overworked and underpaid EA who must split her time between our middle school and the elementary school next door. This year, our middles have access to the library exactly one period a week.

Our design - and it worked!
Over the years, the CRL have done their best to fill the gap and keep good books in the hands of our children. Erin's room became a mini-library where students would come to browse for books. Mary's room served as the annex next door - if Erin didn't have a book, Mary usually did. It wasn't unusual for kids to walk in while we were teaching, find what they were looking for, and silently sign it out.

Meanwhile, our *actual* library became a lot of things it was never intended to be: a warehouse, an A/V storage closet, a museum, and a faculty meeting area. Our 500 students knew it primarily as That Room We Walk Through to Get to the Computer Lab.

This was not okay.
One word: Weeding.

Summer of 2015, it was Go Time and we were thrilled with the opportunity. Not only would we reinvigorate the library, we'd address a few other pressing issues, namely:

1 - Erin's need for classroom space
2 - Mary's need for hours for her administrator's license

Such a good egg!
We had visions of spending a few fun-filled hours in the library then heading out for al fresco lunches. We'll have all afternoon to hang out at the pool! We'll take Friday off! It'll be done in a week, we thought. 10-15 hours, tops.

*cue maniacal laughter*

This one was in Beast-Mode.
This thing was like an onion - an out-dated, emotionally-charged, allergen-filled onion - containing more layers than we care to remember. More than once we looked at each other and silently - okay, not so silently - acknowledged how far over our heads we actually were; but there was no choice other than to just keep swimming. We did research on the fly, discovering long-forgotten policies and steps to the process we never even knew existed. It was a summer spent taking two steps forward and one step back.

We got to the pool twice. Mary's children spent some serious bonding time with our library scanning system. Her 3rd grader boasts newly-developed pecs after loading and unloading carts. As for hours, we stopped counting after one hundred.
CRL - with power tools!

Pretty purple ones!
This past August, we spent each and every morning in our school library in the hopes of transforming it into a book-filled sanctuary worthy of our extraordinary kiddos.

Though school opened without the project being complete, we are extremely proud of our work-in-progress and the kids are already excited. More than once, a student has come up the stairs and gasped "Oh! It looks so GOOD! Thank you!!!"
They look at a space with half-filled shelves. They see spartan wooden chairs where - we hope - comfy beanbags will someday reside. And still they see beauty. Kids curl up on the bare floor, finding the nooks we created just for them. And that's more than enough to keep us going.
New configuration
This summer, we managed to weed the entire non-fiction collection, rearrange the shelving, and carve out a classroom. Just yesterday, we placed a furniture wishlist in the hands of our Principal.
In our next post, we'll outline the steps we followed in case any of you are clinically insane find yourselves inspired to do the same.
- Mary and Erin

Friday, September 18, 2015

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

This summer Erin and I were privileged to spend a day absorbing independent reading teaching strategies from Donalyn Miller at the Scholastic Reading Summit in Boston.  We were there to "assist," but we did little more than provide a cheesy introduction.  In reality, we were happily soaking up the positivity and enthusiasm that comes from having a high concentrate of literary professionals in a small space.

Donalyn, author of The  Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, inspired me to change the way I approach reading in the middle school classroom.  I thought about how I taught novels, what my independent reading requirements were, and I threw my old models out the window.  I can't tell you how my new novel plan worked - I plan to start it in two weeks - but I can report that the new independent reading model is already a smashing success. 

On day three of the new school year, I gave my 8th graders a reading interest survey.  They were asked if they identified themselves as "a reader," the last book they read and loved, what gets in the way of reading, and genres they preferred.  I spent Labor Day weekend pouring over student reading preferences and attitudes, and played match-maker, setting kids up on dates the books I thought best complimented their reading profile.

 Some students were easy to match.  They liked a wide range of genres and provided detailed insight into their reading psyche.  Others presented more of a challenge; these kids didn't have a history of positive relationships with books.  They did not categorize themselves as readers and their genre preferences were more narrow.  These readers (Donalyn taught me to call them developing or dormant, not struggling or reluctant) are the ones I had to work the hardest to please, and the ones for whom the matchmaker system works best. 

These are the kids who wrote comments claiming they didn't like to read.  And I think, too often, parents and teachers took them at face value and believed them.  But that buck stops here.  When faced with a child who claimed to not like reading, I simply told them their words were translated in my brain as, "I haven't found the right book yet."

The actual match making process was time consuming.  I devoted two full class periods to it.  I prepared a review activity for small groups to complete.  While they did, I walked from table to table with stacks of books I'd curated for them based on their survey.  One by one I sat next to each student and explained my choices.  "Because you said you like mystery, I pulled an Agatha Christie book.  Have you ever heard of her?"  "Because you said you hated reading but identified historical fiction as a genre you like, I brought you a graphic novel about the Donner Party.  Have you ever heard of them?"  In this way I had conversations with each student in the class over the course of two days.  Each student was presented with a minimum of three books.  Each books was the subject of a mini-book talk - no more than 60 seconds apiece - and students were given the option to pick a book or say they'd like new choices.

A handful of students, five to be precise, proved to be challenging.  Those five either outright rejected their offerings or returned minutes later to say they tried a book but didn't like it.  One boy identified himself as a lover of non-fiction and action adventure but rejected every exciting non-fiction read he was offered.  Chasing Lincoln's Killer?  Sounds boring.  Into Thin Air?  Nah.  Revenge of the Whale?
Nope.  Eventually, after thirty minutes of excruciating patience (I forced myself to remain calm.  I had to make sure that their book selection experience was positive and stress free.  Thankfully this encounter happened at the end of the school day.  Otherwise, I might have cracked), I asked him to define non-fiction.  Turns out, he had switched the definition of non-fiction and fiction.  He left with Soldier Boys, a happy camper.

One young lady claimed to like "old books," and reported reading and loving Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  So I presented her with a varied mix of Jodi Picoult, Agatha Christie, and Carl Hiaasan.  She took Murder on the Orient Express but returned on Matchmaking Day Two to say she didn't like it.  I book talked two other YA titles.  She tried them both, blessing neither with approval.  Finally I took a desperate shot in the dark and asked, "Have you ever read Hatchet?"  And that's the one that stuck.

But for every child who put me through my paces, there was one who finished their book in one night.  I was thrilled to pieces when a student who claimed to "really dislike reading" read Smile in one night and asked to borrow Sisters and Drama for the weekend.  Thank you, Raina Telgemeier, for helping me reach this girl.

Before leaving for the weekend, a colleague told me that the kids were loving the books I recommended.  I replied that I was happy to hear that, and she said, "What they really loved is that YOU recommended them.  The kids told me, 'She picked this out just for me.'"

Until that moment, I hadn't thought about book matchmaking as a tool for relationship building, but now it seems blindingly obvious.  By giving three or four book talks to each individual child in my classes, I was able to give each one several minutes of undivided, one-on-one attention.  Think of that...several minutes of eye contact, story telling, smiling, and give and take conversation.  I'd completely overlooked how powerful that was going to be, not just for the kids, but for me.  I feel like I *know* my students so much better now.  I know that Thomas is on book four of the Charlie Higson books and Chris loves Harry Potter, that Shannon "hates to read" but loves S.E. Hinton, that Chloe reads slowly but loves a good horror story.  If you'd asked me last year after 7 days of teaching if I could name one thing about each of my students, I'd be lucky to get 50%.  And now?  I think I have a better start on the school year than I have in a long, long time.

Maybe it's a little early to celebrate.  It is only day 7 of the new year, after all.  But I can't help but feel optimistic.  I mean, just LOOK at them!


Friday, July 17, 2015

It's the Little Things

It’s ILA15 travel day!

This is a cause for rejoicing
Early this morning, round about 5am, Erin turned into the Logan Express parking garage and exclaimed, “This used to be a parking lot!  Look at this!”  Upon entering the terminal and taking in its modern seating and very large, interactive, touch-screen display, she marveled, “This is AWESOME!”  I enthusiastically agreed.  She then made a joke about the two of us gushing about the fineness of a bus terminal, laughed and said, “We don’t get out much.”

It got me thinking. 

There are many things that Erin and I share: taste in books, sense of humor, love for a certain beagle, two beautifully flawed children, and the romance novelist Sarah M. Beers.  But today we identified another similarity, one that Erin points out is likely to be a major contributor to the success of our partnership: our ability to become excited by everyday blessings.

I mean, yes, we know that the hotel will deliver toiletries should we happened to phone them at 10pm when they are discovered to be missing.  And yes, we know that there are many delicious breakfasts to be purchased in restaurants around the world.  But just *knowing* those things feels like a poor excuse for not celebrating them when they cross our path.  What’s wrong with a little rejoicing? 

I think one thing that sets The Crazy Reading Ladies apart from other folks – besides our bedazzled T-shirts - is our enthusiasm.  Yes, we are enthusiastic about reading, about teaching, about kids.  But we’re enthusiastic about other things as well – a beautiful sunrise, a quick trip to the airport, a second cup of coffee delivered by a smiling Southwest steward.  And while our passion may feel strong enough to fly a plane to St. Louis, it’s a rare thing in an adult.  We’re taught as children to temper our enthusiasm.  People are tolerant of children who ooh and ahh over the free snacks handed out on the airplane, but adults who do so are obnoxious. 

Room with a view! Sorta!
And I get it.  Mostly.  I mean, if I saw a grown woman standing with her nose pressed up against the terminal windows exclaiming, “It’s so big!” I’d first look for the hidden camera and then assume she had some sort of disability.  But what about an adult showing appropriate appreciation for the person who delivers a much needed coffee, or excitement at the sight of a landmark?  When did we all become so jaded that it’s not cool to marvel out loud at the adorableness of the tiny cut-glass salt and pepper shakers on the banquet table?

I think what upsets me more than seeing adults who have turned off their joy is seeing students who have.  When kids have instant access to all the knowledge in the world sitting in their pocket, they can be pretty darn hard to impress.  I fear that kids are losing their sense of wonder and excitement.  As teachers, we must remember this. 

We must try to see and experience things through the eyes of a child.  We need to not censor our positive emotional reactions.  We must react, and react big.  We must love out loud and model for our students how to be open to the world and how to appreciate its gifts.  If we show them the way, if we make our classrooms safe places, maybe we can awaken the sleeping passion inside our students. 

Today and every day of this St. Louis adventure, Erin and I promise to find the joy in the world around us.  We encourage you to do the same. We'll share with you some of the many things that make us smile.  We probably won't blog about all of them, but we'll tweet them, and we hope you'll share yours with us, too.  We are @allinreading.

And if you happen to be in St. Louis for ILA, please join us Sunday at 1pm room 232  for Building Intrinsic Motivation in Middle Level Readers.  Later that same day we'll be holding a fun-filled workshop from 3-5 in room 127: Putting the C in the CRL.  We're also hosting an author panel with Ellen Hopkins and Una LaMarche on Monday at 11am in room 124.  Hope you can stop by!

And, one last thing before we go:

Mary with her coffee-delivering savior
To Ray, kind-hearted Southwest steward who saw two bleary-eyed Crazy Reading Ladies and delivered a second cup of coffee just to be nice – thank you.  To Jim, always smiling manager of Renaissance Grand St. Louis, who helped when the cloud ate our hotel reservations - thank you.

You guys are AWESOME!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Share Possible

The sun has set and still we sit, basking in the wonder of Scholastic's extraordinary Reading Summit, and feeling positively overwhelmed in the best possible way.

Overwhelming. It was how our Assistant Principal chided us once upon a time; the wrist-slap we decided to own and wear as a badge of honor. Four years ago when she spoke those words, we took it as a compliment; in fact, we loved it so much that when it was time to give All In! its wings and form our very own educational non-profit, we named it in honor of our aha! moment: Overwhelming Success, Incorporated.

Overwhelming. It was the title of our inaugural post. For those of you who have just found our blog: Welcome Home.

Scholastic's Reading Summit served to attract the very best in literacy professionals, powerhouses of information and inspiration, and heart like you wouldn't believe. Being a teacher is not something you do, it's who you are. It's a calling, not a career. And in the last 24 hours, we were surrounded by hundreds of other people who just "get it."

Never before have we experienced such a sense of belonging. You are our people. You are our tribe.

Thank you.

To people like @MrSchuReads and @AuntieRez, who put open arms and smiling faces to Twitter handles for the very first time.

To Dr. Kim Parker, whose incredible essay laid the foundation of a road we will now travel. You have lit a fire.

To Andrea Davis Pinkney, whose presentation rendered us speechless. Your honesty, integrity, and limitless talent are breathtaking. Is it too early to ask how we could possibly get you to our school to be a Visiting Author?

To Alice Ozma, with whom we shared teaching anecdotes and delectable desserts, only to return to our hotel room, remember a certain CBS news piece and scream, "Oh my word, THAT'S HER!!!!!"

To Donalyn Miller, who allowed these fan girls the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as considerable wait time until we managed to speak coherent sentences in your presence. Thank you for striking the perfect balance between validation and inspiration. Thank you for taking the time to talk about books, and kids, and for honoring the duty we have to bring them together. Thank you for stopping by the elevator to wish a certain young man Good Night.

To Rebecca, educator extraordinaire and our long-lost triplet. Thank you for validating us. Thank you for conversation at dinner. And at breakfast. And in the hallway. And in the hotel room. And after the sessions. And in the lobby. Please continue to do what you do. The world needs more crazy reading ladies.

To all of the incredible people at Scholastic for spoiling us rotten and giving us the platform to share a little bit of our crazy. Thank you for bringing together some of the finest leaders in literacy in order to make the world better for our children. Let this be the first of many gatherings.

To Johnny Yotnakparian, Abby's uncle. It was our students who christened us, who gave us our identity as The Crazy Reading Ladies, and everything we do will always be about them. Thank you for honoring us with your gratitude and making us feel like royalty. We have the best jobs in the world. Thank you for "getting" us. And thank you for sharing our story.

To all of the Summit attendees, whose presence and passion made us feel right at home. This is our time. Remember that you are exactly what your students need. We know that you, too, live for the moment a child discovers the joy of reading. Do whatever it takes to get them there. Don't be afraid to love out loud, or on a blingy t-shirt.

For everyone else reading this, we know you're one of us.

Overwhelming. That was how our story started, and we look forward to sharing our journey.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ILA15 Top Ten!

Top Ten Reasons the CRL are Pumped for #ILA15

10. New Crazy Reading Lady Shirts.  Get ready St. Louis, we're bringing enough to keep ourselves decent for three whole days!

9. Vacation Food. We've been on a sugar cleanse for the last week. (9 days, 7.5 hours, to be exact.  But who's counting?) Said sugar cleanse will include more flexible rules as soon as we cross state lines.  Translation: Mary will be ordering dessert first.  And last. 

8. Our peers.  Our peeps.  Our tribe!  Passionate educators whose enthusiasm and abandon are contagious. We love making connections to other professionals who can talk for hours about YA titles, cross-curricular connections, and Woodcock-Johnsons. (If you're laughing right now, you clearly don't assess literacy skills for a living. This is the name of a highly-regarded reading assessment. Get your head out of the gutter!) Nothing is more rejuvenating and satisfying than spending time with professionals who never accuse each other of having a "teacher voice."  (Hi, Mom!) Last year, while in line for coffee, we were treated to an impromptu characterization dance by a woman we had never met. It was one of the finest moments of our trip.

Does this outfit meet dress code?
7. Functioning technology!  We hope!  Keep your fingers crossed that we'll actually be able to show the presentations we've poured hours of blood, sweat, and tears into.  We're still a tad traumatized from last year's experience, during which our finely-crafted, labor-of-love presentation refused to be projected onto the big screen. This brought four tech guys to our session as the clock clicked down and participants arrived.  An hour later, there was still no reasonable explanation as to why our laptop had friend-zoned the projector. Throughout that hour, Mary's wallpaper pic of her boyfriend (Hi, Jim!) was projected for all to see while Erin rambled aimlessly, vamping to buy time. It was a hoot. In all seriousness, we ended up winging it.  We were able to get slides up when we had about 25 minutes left, but at that point they seemed superfluous.  We talked and told stories and laughed and were pretty dang proud of ourselves. The bright side is we know we can do this without a net, but dang! It'd sure be nice to have a net.  But hey, they invited us back this year - for a session AND a workshop - I guess we did okay.

6. Hotel toiletries! Last year, our New Orleans hotel boasted Erin's favorite Aveda shampoo and conditioner. Once word got out, visitors brought handfuls for her stash. You've got big shoes to fill, St. Louis. I mean that stuff is normally, like $30 a bottle! (We don't get out much.)

5.Ideas. The thought of filling our notebooks with "We're SO doing this" ideas, collected from brilliant speakers and inspiring sessions. Last year, we returned from ILA with grand plans for redesigning our library into a literary cafe. It only took a year of planning, but that vision will become reality this fall.  I'm sure our fearless Gandalf awaits our return - and plans to take over even more of the school - eagerly.  (Hi, Mr. Fortin!)

4. Authors and books. Lots and lots of books. We'll happily wait in line to get books autographed for our kiddos, or to tearfully thank an author for writing something that made *that* child love reading.

3. St. Louis.  Home of the arch!  And BBQ!  And...other stuff!  Okay, so it's not New Orleans, but it's not Franklin.  As long as we can visit the local coffee shop without stopping to talk to six or seven current or former students, it will feel like a vacation. 
The CRL found this waiting in N'Awlins.

2. Bus schedules. You'll thank us later.

Aaaand, most of all...

The number one reason we're pumped for #ILA15...

It's a chance to share our crazy!

Please join us at:

Session #00562 - Building Intrinsic Motivation in Middle Level Readers: Tips to Get 'Em Hooked and Keep 'Em Reading.
Sunday, 1pm, Room 232

Workshop #00634  - Putting the C in the CRL: Experience the Outright Craziness the Ladies Bring to Literary Adventures.
Sunday, 3pm, Room 127

Putting Books to Work with Ellen Hopkins and Una LaMarche
Monday, 11am, Room 124

Look out, ILA15!  The Crazy Reading Ladies are coming!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Have a Middle School Book Swap

Considering organizing a community book swap? Let the CRL guide you with some helpful hints from our first venture.

It's a Book Buffet!
We looked at several options before deciding which incarnation would suit our school best. Since our focus was on community service, we would not keep track of who donated what. We knew that was a bit of a risk, but if you staff the swap with teachers who aren't afraid to speak up, it's not a problem. We were prepared to stop shoppers who left with a few dozen; however, due to the sheer volume of books we received, it wasn't something we needed to address.   Given the "browse and take whatever you want" atmosphere, we decided to market this as a Book Buffet.

We are open for business! Photo: Colleen Donahue
Fairness is something middle schoolers positively adore.  The kids more than any other group voiced opinions about how to keep people from taking more than their fair share.  Our open concept Book Buffet was a tough sell, but let us tell you: Letting go of the "give tickets to kids who donated and then let them pick x-number of new ones" was the best decision we made.  We were able to accept donations from all sorts of places (more below) and several students did leave with armfuls.  Because we had embraced openness, we were able to rejoice rather than rebuff.  Hooray!
Emptying the Bibliosaurus for the last time

The Drive

A month before the day of service (see last week's post), The Crazy Reading Minions created the Bibliosaurus.  He's big.  He's green.  He's spotted.  He has a theme song.  And he eats books.

After collecting trash, books that were older than Mary, and one diaper (yes, it was used), The Crazy Reading Minions hit the school news with a little public service announcement asking for books that middle schoolers might actually WANT to read. When in doubt, be explicit: No bodice rippers and no self help, please and thank you.

We placed want ads in both the town email system and the Friends of Franklin Facebook page. We received donations from students, former students, and community members. We encouraged teachers to purge their classroom collections with the promise to add to them later. We put signs in each and every classroom and bathroom. In a little over one month we collected a little over 400 books.

The Set Up
Setting up on June 4
The month-long drive gave us the opportunity to filter through books beforehand. Between us and our Minions, we spent about four hours sorting books in advance of the Book Buffet. We know it sounds crazy to have this in June, but hear us out: people are ready to clean, kids are looking for summer reading books, and teachers have little-to-no patience. This was a very good thing. You'd be shocked at the number of books the CRL deemed "unworthy" and dumped in a recycling bin.

We got so much done.

On June 4th our student volunteers gathered in the cafeteria to transform it into the Book Buffet.  Books were sorted by genre, arranged accordingly, and marked by balloon bouquets.

We have glitter and we aren't afraid to use it
If you want to sell anything to Middle Schoolers, it has to look cool. Now, we know the CRL version of "cool" isn't for everyone, but it usually works.

We indoctrinated our helpers to make it look as professional as possible. "That sign? It needs to be bigger. And centered. And nicer" (see lack of patience, above). We had staff recommendations and catchy neon starbursts. We had balloons and color-coded genres. We used book stands and displayed our inventory in concentric circles. And when several boys made helmets out of empty boxes and held jousting matches from opposite ends of the cafeteria, we told them to pick up scraps of paper off the floor.

Proud "staff" reviewer
While the students worked on physical merchandising and Erin herded 6th graders, Mary called students over one at a time to provide a review for the book of their choice. Students were photographed holding their book, and the photo and review were displayed alongside the books.

Our WWII section with the student-created label "Sad but True."

The Event

Stocking up for summer
Our Book Buffet opened (we were technically knee-deep in ice cream sundaes and just a few minutes late) for an evening event that welcomed students and their families. This was another benefit - so what if we lost track of time? The Book Buffet was essentially self-sustaining. Sure, the CRL would be there to supervise, smile, shake hands, and offer suggestions, but the fact that we were 10 minutes late didn't delay the opening.
"You mean they're free?"

We asked local businesses to donate small shopping bags which encouraged kids to pick more than one.
Before-the-bell crowd Friday morning
Though the evening event brought nearly sixty people through our doors, we kept the Buffet open the following day. It was so cool to watch students wander through the next morning as they arrived at school. Our Assistant Principal commented that she saw three 8th-grade boys reading their newly-selected books as they waiting for the first bell. Additionally, students and teachers were invited down before lunch to shop at their leisure. That's when the books really flew.

"I'm the mascot!"
The Breakdown

As sad as we were to see it end, our Book Buffet had served its purpose - re-homing nearly 350 books in less than 24 hours - and gone swimmingly enough for us to consider doing this again. Since our Buffet had to be cleared in time for lunch, we looked at the remaining selection with critical eyes and threw away a handful of rejected books. It took less than twenty minutes to collect balloons, take down posters, fold tablecloths, and pack one box with books we deemed "Keep for next time." Easy peasy. And our event wasn't short any amount of pathos. Students selected books as gifts for siblings. Mary's son - exhibiting great patience at yet another CRL event - found a quiet spot in the back and began reading. Friends sought out multiple copies so they could read together. And when Erin returned to her classroom the next day, she found a book waiting on her desk with a note. A 7th grader had selected one for her.

I promise.
Of all the things we've done to spread the love of literacy and put good books in the hands of kids, this was - by far - the simplest and the cheapest. Kids were chatting about books, making recommendations to each other, and seemed thrilled to have the gift of free choice.

We've already decided that this will be a semi-annual event at our school. Since the family element was so powerful, we'll likely connect the Book Buffet to an evening event such as parent-teacher conferences or concerts.

Let us know if you decide to pursue this at your school, and be sure to let us know how it goes!

Happy Summer Reading!

New books, ripe for the picking!
One of the three fiction tables
Nice view!

Shopping before school

Thursday, June 11, 2015

This is why we work

For years, Erin has been talking about wanting to do a book swap. Unable to visualize Erin's concept, for years Mary has been humoring her.  "Yeah.  That would be cool.  Uh huh.  Yup." 
CRLs stand ready at the grand opening

Posing with the Bibliosaurus
This past Thursday night, Erin's idea came to fruition under the most unexpected circumstances.  We certainly didn't plan for it to happen this way, but the Crazy Reading Ladies are not known for planning ahead anyway. When opportunity knocks, we've decided it's best not to ask too many questions. We simply say "yes" first and figure out the details later. We just work well together. And we know we work. And we have way too much fun doing it.

So how did our (Erin's) book swap opportunity present itself?  Well...

Horace Mann Middle School  recently hosted singer and songwriter Chadwick Stokes and his charity Calling All Crows.  Chad worked with students to workshop some songs they'd written and teach them the songwriting process.  One lucky girl had her lyrics turned into a song, and it was performed by Mr. Stokes at a benefit concert that evening.  (How cool is THAT?!)

Staff Recommended
Because Calling All Crows emphasizes service to others, every student in the school was engaged in some form of community service for the second half of the school day on June 4th.  Teachers were given the opportunity to put forth ideas for community service, and students were then given their choice of service activity.  Animal-loving teachers helped kids make homemade dog treats to be donated to animal shelters.  6th grade teachers worked with students of all grades to create Welcome to 6th Grade informational pamphlets to be given to current 5th graders.  Students planted flowers on school grounds, read books to preschoolers, made cards for the troops, and turned old t-shirts into reusable shopping bags.  It was a super cool afternoon for teachers and students, and the CRL took advantage of the opportunity to pull together a book swap.

Okay, full disclosure.  Erin took advantage of the opportunity.  Mary, suffering from a condition known as 8th-graders-in-June, whined, "I don't care what I do, just please put me with Erin."
Voila! A scrumptious book buffet!
That night, before the Chadwick Stokes benefit concert, the doors of the Book Buffet opened (while Mary and and Erin were enjoying hot fudge sundaes and losing track of time), and students were able to fill bags with 100% free, no strings attached, new-to-them books. 
We're totally working.
Before we inundate you with photographs of the event, it's worth mentioning that the event was such a success that we've decided to make the Bibliosaurus a permanent fixture in the HMMS hallways and hope to make the Book Buffet a semi-annual event.  Hey, we're the CRL.  Go big or go home. 
"Can we take more than one?"
Shopping for summer reading

Sunday, May 31, 2015


At IRA14, the Crazy Reading Ladies had the honor of leading a group discussion centered around Young Adult literature. The participants were teachers, librarians, literacy professionals, and several YA authors.  As we chatted about recommendations for reluctant readers, tried-and-true favorites, and upcoming releases, the word "appropriate" came up.  

Teachers and librarians dove right in, sharing their own stories about books they could or could not recommend to students, what they had been asked to censor at a parent's or administrator's request, or what their current permission slip looked like.

The authors were positively gobsmacked. Seriously, mouths hung agape. 

"Wait, you guys have to pre-screen stuff?" 

All around the circle, teachers' heads nodded as the moment of mutual shock set in. These authors had no idea that one sex scene, f-bomb, or allusion to drug use could remove their book from a child's hands. While we were overjoyed that a light had been shed on a very real problem, we couldn't really give the authors much assistance in making their books more marketable without crossing the line into censorship.

That's right.  We said it.  The C word.  

It's a fine line between determining appropriateness and censoring.  A mighty fine line.  

Determining what is and is not appropriate requires the teacher to look at the  big picture - identifying themes and ideas and matching those things up with potential readers.  Discussions take place around how the conflicts are developed, how far into the book one goes before the protagonist redeems herself, and the overall impression the reader leaves with.  When books are seen not as a arrangement of individual words but rather as a collective message, it becomes much easier to forgive certain sins. As public school teachers and educated professionals, we feel empowered to judge literature and determine it's relative appropriateness for our wide middle school audience.  Appropriateness includes grey area; something might be fine for a mature 6th grader but not a good choice for a sensitive 7th grader.  Appropriateness is flexible and fluid. 

Censoring is a different beast entirely.  Censorship pays attention to the power of individual words and phrases.  The idea here is that, while the overall message may be positive, the book itself is polluted by certain letters arranged in a certain order.  As ELA teachers, we understand the power of individual words.  Mary recently spent a full 15 minutes with her students teasing out the significance of the word "my" in a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird.  If a two letter pronoun can change the interpretation of an entire fictional relationship, then what can a four letter curse word do?  A lot.  If you're living in one of the less enlightened areas of the country, that four letter word can remove the book from library and classroom bookshelves.
Oh, stop.  He's singing "Where is Thumbkin?" 

Herein lies the problem. There is not one universal standard deeming language - or anything for that matter - offensive. It is a personal decision. What is upsetting for one person may be perfectly acceptable for another. 

Some authors have taken it upon themselves to help us out by altering the language that they use.  For example, in response to the John Green lovefest that recently swept our Middle School, we picked up a copy of AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. Scattered throughout the book was a word we had never seen before: fug. In case you too are a bit kwanfused, let us put it in context. It can be used in the following ways: Go fug yourself or Mother fugger.  

First of all, was the original word (we think we know what he was going for...) so "offensive" it was deemed "inappropriate" for young adults?  If so, is the changing of that final consonant sound really fooling anyone? Are parents and publishers breathing a collective sigh of relief because of the absence of a certain expletive?  Are we the only ones who think that the connotation is loud and clear? Isn't the intent obvious? Come on, if you are going to say something, SAY IT!  You really aren't doing us any favors.  Really.

Now, we understand that some language is so offensive that parents feel the need to protect their children from it.  We understand that some scenarios in The Hunger Games or Divergent are upsetting to less mature readers.  And we have fully supported parents in their right to say no to their child.  Recognizing that each person has her own comfort zone, the CRL developed our policy regarding what to do when a parent is offended by our book choice: 

"The decision lies with the family. We will support you 100% in deciding what is best for your individual child." 

Sometimes, that is all it takes to mollify an upset parent.  Unfortunately, it is more frequently the case that parents are not content with choosing what is right for their child.  They want to decide that their standard should be applied to everyone.  And that's not okay with us. 

Ultimately, we Crazy Reading Ladies have decided that censorship is the mountain upon which we are willing to die.  

That is, we will listen to parents who disagree with our choices, we will talk them through our decision making process, we will listen some more while they list the thousand of other books we should have chosen instead.  We will encourage them to do what is best for their child and listen even more while they inform us of their various degrees in literature and child psychology.  We will thank them for their input, and we will relay their concerns to our principal, but we will not remove an otherwise appropriate book from the hands of 499 other middle schoolers simply because it has a word, a phrase, a scene, or a character that offends them.  We will not take that book from our shelves or wield black sharpies in an attempt to protect all our students from the material that one parent deems offensive.

We certainly aren't here to incite riots, wave flags, or further an agenda.  We have always sought to put good books in the hands of students and get them excited about reading. We are here to create lifelong literature lovers, nothing more.

That's not to say that we haven't somewhat caved to pressure.  This year we went to unprecedented lengths to get parent buy in, announcing the book to parents a full six weeks before it became available to students, allowing parents time to read and decide for themselves.  We chose a book we thought no one could possibly object to - the inspiring true story of a WWII hero.  We chose to adopt and promote the YA version of the book to further provide a buffer for those who felt the subject matter too upsetting.  And still...STILL...parents complained.  Frustrated and irritated by the request to choose a book better aligned to conservative family values, Mary exclaimed, "What do they want!?  Charlotte's Web?"  Erin replied, "That will upset the vegans."

I guess that's our take-away.  There is no such thing as the perfect book.   There will always be something to upset someone.  The best we can do is choose good books for our kids.  

And if they don't like it, fug 'em. 


Monday, May 25, 2015

Choose Wisely

We aren't that old. Really, we're not. We weren't in middle school that long ago; how did things change so fast? One of the most peculiar signs of our current times is The Power of Words.

On the one hand, if you turn on network television at 8:00 or listen to the Top 40, you'll hear words that were deemed "inappropriate" as recently as the '90s.  On the other, words "offend" with ease and, almost weekly, leave someone in court or out of work; or, at the very least, delivering a half-hearted and highly-scripted public apology. 

Four years, four books
Words matter. And we make our living putting pages of them in the hands of children. The stakes are high; very high. 

So where does that leave us - two Crazy Reading Ladies who are often tasked with endorsing books for a few hundred adolescents? Want to know what goes through our minds as we consider what to put in the hands of our cherubic charges? Yeah, so do we. 
  It has been almost five years since we started our All In! adventure. Over one thousand readers have devoured the pages of four very different books. And by most standards, we've picked a winner every time. So why is it so difficult to explain how we've chosen them? 

It's surprising - even to us as we sit here and type - that we don't have a clear answer. There's no rubric, no formula, no Russian judge. It's just us.

"No book for you."
Whether planning a school-wide reading initiative or simply shopping for our classrooms, The Crazy Reading Ladies read widely and frequently, and always with a few hundred middle schoolers on our hearts. We read with a purpose: is this the right book for our kids? Mary often compares this process to the Film course she took in college; once she knew how movies were structured, she viewed them through a completely different lens. She knew about lighting and music and camera angles and dialogue and reaction shots. And after a while no one wanted to go to the movies with Mary anymore, because she'd talk her way through the entire thing.

We are put in a similar situation. We read while thinking about relatable characters, assessing developmental appropriateness, analyzing messages presented, dreaming up activities, imagining costume potential, and responding to hypothetical parental and administrative inquiries. And if it gets our blessing, we go with it.

That's all.

Though it may be hard to believe, as frighteningly alike as we are, the two of us have different barometers. But we respect (and admire) each other to such a degree that if a book raises even one of our eyebrows, we put it aside; however, if we both think something is okay, we'll go with it and stand by it, which is not without risk for two ladies who love their jobs and work in an increasingly litigious society. 

We know our students think we have read every book that has ever been written (or at least the ones in our classrooms) but we haven't. We rely on casual recommendations, Top Ten lists, and online reviews just like everyone else. But what to do when the ALA-honored book you ordered for your 8th graders features both four-letter words and a certain toothpaste-tube tutorial? You go with your gut - and if you're us, you're sending that puppy back to Barnes and Noble. As Mary once famously said, "If I can't figure out how to write the permission slip, I'm not putting it on my shelf."

So I guess we can't tell you how we know it's right, but it's easy for us to identify when it isn't. 

Without expending too much end-of-the-year energy, we can easily rattle off the following honest-to-goodness charges we have received when people have deemed our book selections "inappropriate": 
  • too long
  • too difficult
  • too easy
  • too violent
  • anti-American
  • pro-American
  • furthers liberal agenda
  • too sexual
  • contains inappropriate language
  • is psychologically disturbing
  • too real
  • too fake
  • too religious
  • anti-Catholic
  • characters are too old 
  • presence of drugs
We believe in fairy tales
Jodi Picoult's new YA book OFF THE PAGE (co-written with her daughter, the lovely Samantha VanLeer) has spurred some recent commentary on social media: Which of Ms. Picoult's "adult" books can you recommend to young readers? 

Perhaps we're just far too verbose, but the CRL could not respond to that inquiry in 140 characters; there's no easy answer to that question. We've suggested THE STORYTELLER to some very mature 8th graders who are passionate about the Holocaust and seem ready for such an experience; on the other hand, there are several adults in our building who have yet to "go there." We've talked to an elephant-obsessed 7th grader about LEAVING TIME, but haven't given it to a friend who is mommy to a toddler. Everyone is different. It's about knowing your audience. 

We're not saying that our standard is perfect, but it has yielded some pretty stellar results and, even with 20/20 hindsight, we wouldn't change a thing. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Field Trip 2015

Hey, remember when we had an updated blog? YIKES! This winter, time has seemingly slipped right through our fingers. Blogs sit unpublished, quasi-blonde roots appear exposed and in desperate need of highlighting, and two CRL are still in the midst of planning the first after-school activity for UNBROKEN, a full two-months after the field trip! I guess somewhere deep-down, we knew we'd find a way to make this a year-long initiative.

Speaking of the field trip, we owe you a post, don't we dear readers?  It's about time we document the official #ALLIN15 movie event!

If you're short on time and want to cut straight to the six buses and all the cuteness 297 middle school readers can bring, enjoy the video below:

For the uber-detailed, highly-emotional, ridiculously-verbose commentary you've come to expect from the CRL, read on.
One of our faves from #ALLIN15

On January 6, 2015 we took a few hundred readers to the movies, but that was several months (and several feet of snow) ago. Never fear!  The CRL took notes whilst viewing said movie with said readers!

Even though this was our largest group yet, the field trip was seamless; however, as much as we'd love to take all the credit and gloat that we're getting pretty good at this gig, the CRL had help. And a few sticky-notes from our 2014 adventure - tell the kids to bring a bag lunch, ask them not to show previews - which directed our 2015 planning. We also worked with a new theater this year; Showcase Cinema was superlative. They answered every phone call and urgent email, quelled every fear, and even opened up a second theater when - much to our delight - our initial estimate came up short because some middle school decided to take a record-breaking romp through Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller. Showcase Cinema has fallen into CRL-land and is most certainly All In!
We couldn't quite believe it



The day before our movie outing, we met with our extraordinary middles for a brief assembly. We took the opportunity to acknowledge our 60(!) Three-Peats and, given the subject matter, had an open dialogue about strategies for managing potentially difficult scenes. The pre-briefing seemed well worth it; though two sixth grade girls watched the majority of the movie within arm's reach of the CRL, we are proud to report that all of the students were returned to their parents unscathed and in good condition.

For attendance purposes they were divided into groups bearing UNBROKEN-themed monikers: Hillenbrand, Torrance, Albatross, Superman. In the spirit of full disclosure, they weren't groups, they were squadrons, and we came up with the names during a 10:00 phone call the night before. Because it was cute. And that's how we roll.

Year Four. We got this.
Fact: Our 297 readers were split into 12 groups.
Fact: The CRL let children sit anywhere they want once we get to the theater.
Fact: Adolescents hear the word "group" and stop listening.

Eighteen years of middle school experience has taught us that it's best not to post groups too far in advance, so our kids were informed of their placements the day prior to the field trip. Our 7th and 8th graders know the drill, and after the first two quick and efficient, almost-too-easy, super-smooth mealtime announcements, we were feeling pretty darn good about ourselves. Students found their names on the list, committed the squadron name to memory, and then passed it on to the next table. But you know what's coming, don't you? 6th grade lunch. A mob formed quickly. Papers were torn, tears were shed, lists were lost. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. It looked strikingly similar to feeding time at a predatory monkey exhibit. Erin barely survived. She had to give "the look" and use "the tone" with "the microphone." It wasn't pretty.

In the long run though, it was completely worth it.  When field trip morning arrived, the kids sorted themselves into groups, found their chaperones, and were ready to go within moments. It was almost too easy. We even had students step up and start taking attendance as chaperones were still rolling in.

The Verdict


The readers have spoken
In years past we have been able to see the movie either in advance of its release or within the first few days. Considering we had two weeks between movie release and our field trip, it was hard to ignore the chatter about the adaptation and its "mixed reviews." It may surprise some to know that the CRL intentionally avoided seeing the movie until we could watch it with our kiddos. Our motives are selfish. It's simply awesome to see a movie with an educated, invested audience. We've become addicted to the experience, seeing the fruits of our labor; when it comes to movie viewing, there's nothing better. We also felt like it was the right thing to do. We were delighted to save our initial, raw reactions for them. When student queries of, "Did you see it over vacation?" were met with shakes of our heads, our tweens smiled and seemed to reveal a sense of relief...and something like gratitude. "We would never see it without you! We were waiting until we could all see it together!"

After the movie, there was a lot to discuss. Sure, we could sit here and be critical of some of the movie's shortcomings; but overall, we were quite pleased. Louie Zamperini lived the life of ten men and unless Angelina Jolie was going to go all Peter Jackson on this project and turn a 400-page book into a trilogy of two-and-a-half hour epics, some things were going to have to be cut. We concur that it was a good effort and a worthy representation, but our kids overwhelmingly favored the book. Ta da!

I guess you could say we're four for four. Every year, our students have preferred the book over the movie adaptation. As one child expressed, "I think the movie was okay. I might have thought it was great if I hadn't read the book, but the book was just so much better than the movie." The on-camera interviews we conducted yielded two very consistent arguments: lack of "details" and "the end of the book."

We are always impressed with the amount of minutiae they are able to analyze and remember. We love that our cherubs are so protective of the book they adore that they noticed the men on the raft ate the first bird in the movie, when in fact they never ate it because of its foul smell. And we take such pride in the fact that our students - our readers - are the target audience. Someday, we tell them, someday Hollywood is going to come to you before making the final cut.

Students commented on casting - the hits and the misses - the use of flashbacks, and even the chemistry between actors. "Louie and Phil were such good friends. They were like brothers. They depended on each other and kept each other alive. You didn't get that in the movie. Phil was just, like some guy."

Six buses - we did it again!
A lot of students spoke about the importance of Louie's struggles after the war. We have video footage of early adolescents using phrases like "alcohol abuse" and "dedicating his life to God" and voicing their complaints that this period wasn't thoroughly explored.  One young man stated that Louie's internal struggle and redemption after the war was more inspiring than his POW experience. Extraordinary.

Following the movie there was so much to discuss - who jumped (both of us when that stupid shark came up out of nowhere), who cried, who picked up on the author reference and the real photo of Cecy - that we felt funny returning to school. Sure, there's always a certain letdown after the field trip, but this time we were clingy and downright disappointed.  More so than ever before, we were disheartened to leave our kiddos and head back to class. Whether it was the intensity of the subject matter or the spirit of our fabulous students, we wanted nothing more than to spend the afternoon in quiet seclusion with them, slowly eating and debriefing about the experience.

Put that on the sticky note for next year.