Valued and Validated: Making Time for Journaling

Valuing and validating your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Here are four reasons responding to student journals should become part of your teaching practice.

By Adrin Fisher

When I was a girl, I always had a diary. I remember one in particular. It was red and white, with a cover photograph of Annie, beaming in her “Daddy Warbucks” dress. Many years later, when I was going through a rough patch in college, someone suggested that I keep a “Blessings Journal.” Rather than record activities, you list three good things from the day. That’s all. Simple. Quick. Transformational.

Daily journaling is a discipline that few undertake, but quickwrites in the classroom seem more common. In the PLC I facilitate in my school, we’ve been reading some of the most prominent current voices in teaching English, Kittle and Gallagher. In their books, particularly in 180 Days, they have “notebook time.” They ask students to collect, study, and then imitate techniques writers use as well as to generate their own thinking (2018, p. 35-36). They differentiate their writer’s notebooks from a standard classroom journal by creating different sections for collection and writing. Done in this way, the journal becomes a tool for reading engagement and skill development.

Journaling was not a big part of my education. As a student, I only had two teachers who required journals. First, my greatest and most favorite teacher, Linda Orr Morgan, had us purchase steno notebooks for AP English. She gave us prompts and pages to fill, and then responded in her distinctive handwriting. Because I looked up to her, I felt honored that she spent time reading my thoughts. Later at WVU, I had Dr. Cheryl Torsney for an American Lit survey. She collected responses to Whitman and Rowlandson and wrote back. Again, I was baffled that a professor cared about what I had to say. The fact that both of these teachers required, and most importantly RESPONDED TO, the journals of their students amazed me. I felt valued and validated.

Even so, requiring and reading journals didn’t enter my own teaching practice for many years. After I’d been teaching 7th grade Reading and Language Arts for a while, a fresh first-year teacher took over the co-teach section. I remember watching Stacey Angelo pull one spiral notebook after another from a crate. She said, “It’s no big deal. I just read the entries and write ‘LOL’ or add a comment or question.” She collected journals every Friday and read them all. Because of her enthusiasm, I began doing journals too. And like my teacher-mentors, I read them all. And since that day, about fourteen years ago now, I’ve done them with every student, every year.

A caveat: I do not have students journal every day. That’s too much for me. Many days, we are doing Daily Grammar Practice as bell ringers, or we’re handing in essays, or getting out laptops.

Another caveat: Grading journals is time-consuming. I drag a crate home and spend a few hours over the weekend going through and responding. Unlike Stacey Angelo, I don’t pick them up every week—but sometimes I wish I did. I have found that somehow, anything over ten entries seems to double the grading time. It’s a trick of the mind, but a significant one.

One last caveat: In my classes, journal grades are based on completion. I ask for a half-page of thinking and I never correct grammar or usage. And the half-page mark is subjective too, as it depends on handwriting size and spacing. It’s kind of fun to take a break from the laser focus of correction in favor of just listening in. Because I’m essentially grading participation, this is a low-point value assignment—normally, 5 points per entry.

A class of journals, ready to be graded.

I’ve had many, many teacher-friends—including my husband—tell me I’m crazy for grading journals. So, why do I bother?

Well, first of all, I do it to provide a way for students to engage the material. To begin Hamlet, I ask students to write about ghosts. Partway through Act 2 of Macbeth, I ask the kids to talk about “the domino effect.” In A Separate Peace, I wonder how they feel about competition between friends. In The Canterbury Tales, I ask them to imagine which pilgrims they’d invite over for dinner. Best practice demonstrates that students respond out loud more precisely and more confidently if they respond in writing first. And this method fits squarely in Hunter’s anticipatory set model.

Who knew that Iron Maiden’s “Fear of the Dark” fit with Beowulf so perfectly?

More importantly, I use journals as a way to get to know my students. In a recent article on Edutopia, teacher Sarah Yost writes about the importance of knowing her students. The three strategies she presents are ones that I, too, have used for many years. This journaling thing, though, is the icing on the cake. My students reveal their thinking. They name their heroes. They tell family traditions. They share superstitions. They connect heavy metal songs to literature. Sometimes they share secrets—ones that I have to follow up with—or talk about conflicts. Sometimes they’re silly. Often they are writing—just writing—in their own unique voices.

Writing like this is a simple way to help develop an authorial voice. Kids aren’t worried about grammar or spelling or supporting a thesis. Journaling gives them space to just be, for a few quiet minutes in an otherwise frenetic high school day.

Journaling supports content generation. When preparing to take on dual-credit English 12 with a local university this year—a first for my school and a first for me—I met with a couple of professors. One said that she gives class time to write informally, as she’s found that college freshmen have trouble filling pages. To be sure, my dual-credit students have complained that I’m not telling them what to write about or how to write about it:  it’s up to them to choose the models that work for their pieces and then think of ideas, and then support their ideas. So, of course, I’ve required journals during this first semester. And I’ve read every word.

Imitating a mentor text to add sentence variety.

I love it. I don’t look forward to the stacks of journals. I complain to my husband. Some entries are really boring, and sometimes the handwriting is indecipherable—even to English-teacher eyes. And I always have a zillion other things to do, lessons to prep, dinner to cook. But then there are the entries that make me laugh or push me to think or make me angry or open a window into these teenage lives. Because high school can be hard. Life can be relentless. I learn so much about these kids through reading and responding to their journals. I hear their voices. I value them. I’m a better teacher—and a better person—because of it. 

So, when you’re thinking about impactful instructional strategies and you’re weighing cost versus benefit, I would encourage you, teacher-friend, to do it. While you may choose to land on the side of “ungraded practice” like Kittle and Gallagher, you may also choose to try my way: read it all, goofy ideas and improper syntax and creative spelling and all. Resist the urge to mark corrections and take the opportunity to ask them questions, to laugh, or cry or commiserate or suggest books or movies or restaurants.

And if you already make journaling a habit with your students, I thank you.

Remember that hearing your students’ voices is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. 

Remember that as a trusted adult, your response matters.

At a holiday party last weekend, my uncle, a retired school bus driver, told me about a girl who used to ride his bus. She used to sit up front because she didn’t have many friends, and he’d give her candy and chat as they drove along. She’s in her 30s now, but she came to visit recently. She told my uncle how much his kindness meant to her. How her grandfather whom she’d loved had passed away when she was a kid and how, simply talking to her and giving her candies from his jacket pocket, my uncle comforted her. Uncle Richard just shook his head as he told the story, amazed that she remembered such a simple thing. “You just don’t know,” he said, “how you’re making a difference every day.”

What a gift you have, teacher-friend, in your capacity to touch students’ lives meaningfully. All it takes is the willingness to respond.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. How does journaling impact your classroom experience? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you grace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of essays, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or teaching Shakespeare “like a boss,” you can find her reading, tree bathing in a wintry park, writing in her current composition book, or re-watching the Star Wars saga with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Contemporary Appalachian Literature: Collections & Anthologies for Your Classrooms and Curriculums

By Jessica Salfia

With the new school year in full swing, I’ve seen teachers all over Facebook and Twitter sharing donors choose projects and Amazon Wish Lists filled with books for their classroom libraries and curriculums. As you continue buy books to diversify your classroom libraries, think about the ways Appalachia is represented in your classroom. How are you disrupting single stories of this region?

The WVCTE blogging team has written before about the ways we have worked to teach our students and our colleagues about the importance and power of place.  You can search the “Appalachian Studies” category to read some of these blogs or check out the Appalachian syllabus tab on this website.  There are so many novels by regional writers that we love: Southernmost by Silas House, Trampoline and Weedeater by Robert Gipe, A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash, Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake to name a few.

But oftentimes the pace of the school year does not allow time to teach an entire text, so it’s important to also know where to find quality short fiction, essays, and poetry by Appalachia’s finest.

This year the Shepherd University Appalachian Heritage Writer in Residence is Crystal Wilkinson, and my students read her book Water Street this summer as part of their introduction to Appalachian studies.

According to the Kentucky University Press website:

“The residents of Water Street are hardworking, God-fearing people who live in a seemingly safe and insulated neighborhood within a small Kentucky town: “Water Street is a place where mothers can turn their backs to flip a pancake or cornmeal hoecake on the stove and know our children are safe.” But all is not as it seems as the secret lives of neighbors and friends are revealed in interconnected tales of love, loss, truth, and tragedy.

In this critically acclaimed short story collection, Crystal Wilkinson peels back the intricate layers that form the fabric of this community and its inhabitants—revealing emotionally raw, multifaceted tales of race, class, gender, mental illness, and interpersonal relationships. The thirteen succinct stories offer fragmented glimpses of an overarching narrative that emerges, lyrical and fierce. Featuring a new foreword and a new afterword which illuminate Wilkinson’s artistic achievement, this captivating work is poised to delight a new generation of readers.”

When I was building lessons for my students around Wilkinson’s text, I started thinking about how important collections of short fiction and anthologies are to ELA curriculums. We don’t just need contemporary and diverse novels in our curriculums, but we also need contemporary and diverse poetry, short stories, and essays. (shout out #TeachLivingPoets)

So without further ado, below are four collections of Appalachian prose and poetry that I think belong in every secondary classroom library.

(And the only reason that Wilkinson isn’t on my list below is because my students will get to meet her in a few weeks, and I’ve got a whole blog post planned that is reserved exclusively for her genius. Stay tuned.)

Collections & Anthologies for Your Classrooms and Curriculums

  1. The Sound of Holding Your Breath by Natalie Sypolt


A native West Virginian, Natalie Sypolt’s debut book is a collection of powerful short stories set in contemporary Appalachia that feature characters pushed to their breaking points.  You’ll recognize many people in Sypolt’s stories: the boy next door, the girl next door, the preacher’s son, the waitress at your local diner, the overworked teacher, the vet struggling with PTSD, the vet’s wife struggling to understand and help her husband.  But while perhaps recognizable, Sypolt’s characters are anything but ordinary.

From the WVU Press website:

“…tragedy and violence challenge these unassuming lives: A teenage boy is drawn to his sister’s husband, an EMT searching the lake for a body. A brother, a family, and a community fail to confront the implications of a missing girl. A pregnant widow spends Thanksgiving with her deceased husband’s family. Siblings grapple with the death of their sister-in-law at the hands of their brother. And in the title story, the shame of rape ruptures more than a decade later.”

Many of Sypolt’s stories are a perfect fit for secondary ELA classrooms. In my classroom, I have crafted creative writing lessons around “Diving,” “Ghosts,” “Lettuce,” and “Stalking the White Deer.” Whether for a lesson or classroom library, add this book to your “to read” pile soon!

  1. Shall We Gather at the River, edited by David Joy and Eric Rickstad


There is more one essay in this collection that left me with tears in my eyes and my heart overflowing. Full disclosure: I love fishing. But whether you are a fisherman or not, these essays will move you and your students. And while the stories in this collection are about fishing, they are also the ways we connect to nature, each other, and ourselves. There are essays that will make you laugh and essays that will make you cry. And if you have any reluctant readers who are also sportsman, I can guarantee there is an essay in here for them.  Featuring Appalachian writers—Ron Rash and Silas House to name a few—throughout the collection and writers from around the country, this anthology was one of my favorite reads of the summer.

  1. Appalachian Reckoning, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

app reckoning

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been one of the most controversial and contentious books written about our region in decades. Since its publication in 2016, writers, activists, and teachers from the region have been refuting and rejecting Vance’s inaccurate portrayal of Appalachia. In this collection from WVU Press, writers from across Appalachia respond to the single story that, thanks to Vance’s novel, was once again thrust to forefront. Featuring prose, poetry, and photography from a wide-range of diverse authors, this book is a treasure trove of classroom resources.  If you are looking to disrupt the single story of Appalachia for yourself or your students, get this collection in your classroom.

  1. LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia,edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts


Once you put down Appalachian Reckoning, pick up this and continue disrupting your single story of Appalachia with this anthology, also from WVU Press. I just finished this beautiful collection of poetry and prose last week and have added it to my classroom library.

From the WVU Press website:

“This collection, the first of its kind, gathers original and previously published fiction and poetry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer authors from Appalachia. Like much Appalachian literature, these works are pervaded with an attachment to family and the mountain landscape, yet balancing queer and Appalachian identities is an undertaking fraught with conflict. This collection confronts the problematic and complex intersections of place, family, sexuality, gender, and religion with which LGBTQ Appalachians often grapple.

With works by established writers such as Dorothy Allison, Silas House, Ann Pancake, Fenton Johnson, and Nickole Brown and emerging writers such as Savannah Sipple, Rahul Mehta, Mesha Maren, and Jonathan Corcoran, this collection celebrates a literary canon made up of writers who give voice to what it means to be Appalachian and LGBTQ.”

Happy reading!

WVCTE wants to know…

if and when YOU include any of these works into your curriculums or classroom libraries! Shout us out on Facebook, Twitter, or via email with a picture and tell us how it goes! We want to hear from you. 






My Reader’s Notebook: Making My Thinking Visible for My Students

By: Jessica Michael Bowman

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 10.44.10 PM

Since you’re spending your time perusing the WVCTE best practices blog, I have a hunch you’re probably a teacher of all things reading, writing, and thinking. I’d venture to guess you’re also a words person. I mean, it comes with the territory. If you are, you are my people.

We are the words people. Maybe, like me, you feel a deep sense of joy in your ability to turn a phrase, get a little lost in the glee of word play. And yet you agonize over finding, choosing, and inserting the perfect word that will carry the weight and nuance of the meaning behind it.

What is it about the the written word that we, as words people, appreciate so much? Why do we so painstakingly and lovingly collect them, arrange them, meditate upon them?

For me, my love of words is evident in every part of who I am and who I have been.

Lyrics, extracted from a melody, turned over in my mind and jotted down in a journal. Captured in script and suspended in my daughter’s nursery.

Love letters, creased and worn with the unfolding and reopening of time. Kept sacred and treasured, memorized in my heart as much as my mind.

Words of warmth, scrawled in old Christmas cards or immortalized in Times New Roman in my inbox. Time capsules where I seek out the comfort of those who are no longer with me.

It still amazes me – the gift that words are. The freedom we have to choose them and the magic that unfolds as we place them before and after one another. And it still terrifies me – the way they can be distorted, their beauty turned sinister, left twisted and tarnished.

Words, while universal, are so personal.

And so I often wonder: If the written word can be so powerful for us, what what about our students?

The discovering, collecting, and arranging of words are science and art. I am fascinated by what moves us, lovers of words, to cling to certain phrases, to place importance on some and not others. I think about the choices we make when we read and write, what resonates with us.  It’s this fondness for the written word and interest in others’ thinking, reading, and writing lives that has lead me down the path of one of the most rewarding discoveries of my teaching career. Teaching, a universal and personal endeavor, has been where my love affair with words has been most fostered. And it has been the most infectious vehicle for it to spread.

Nothing has transformed my teaching of reading and writing about reading like my reader’s notebook. And when I say “my,” I truly mean it is mine. My students have theirs, and this is a necessity. But it is my reader’s notebook that has been the biggest catalyst for developing their thinking about reading and response to reading. It has also given them a glimpse into my own thoughts, and therefore a bit of who I am as a lover of words.

By sharing my reader’s notebook, I’ve let my students in on the secret that all of us word people know.

Screen Shot 2019-08-28 at 7.54.39 AM

Even if you’ve never used reader’s notebooks in your classroom before, I’d wager that you have used one yourself. It may not be a notebook, spiral bound and lined. Perhaps it’s sticky notes you fancy, or a go-to app on your phone. Maybe it’s a conversation you have over coffee with someone who has read the same book as you, or a line scribbled down on paper – affirmation affixed to your fridge. In some form, words person, you have read and in turn – it got you thinking. And you captured and shared this thinking in some way, for some purpose. Big ideas, powerful lines – something had to stick with you, keep you wondering, leave you questioning.

While we are so aware of our own thinking, metacognition is something we need to nudge our students toward.  I’ve found no better way than to bring my reading and writing life to the forefront of my classroom, to bare my soul a little and invite my students into the world of word lovers.

Using My Reader’s Notebook Authentically 

I’ve been using reader’s notebooks, the cornerstone of reader’s workshop, in my classrooms for years. It’s always been with careful attention that I’ve implicitly and explicitly taught my students how to use them to jot as they read independently. We would call it “opening a dialogue with our books,” and as I conferred with students, their learning was made visible to me. Their notebooks were a great starting point for formative assessment, and even a great accountability piece for increasing engagement. The first time one of my students shared a reader’s notebook with me, I could see transfer.

Still, it wasn’t until I began sharing my reader’s notebook that I saw my students’ love of reading and voracious writing about reading transform. Previously, I always modeled how I might jot about what I’m reading during a read aloud or mini lesson solely with an anchor chart or on my interactive whiteboard. While I was modeling the kind of thinking about reading I wanted my students to replicate, I was missing the authenticity and beauty of what a real reader’s notebook can offer. I wasn’t making my thinking visible for them, and I was hiding a vital part of my reading self from them.

Now, whenever I’m teaching and coaching, I always carry with my reader’s notebook with me. It’s full of my favorite lines, theories, quotes, character analyses, and questions. It draws upon the work we’re doing in the classroom, as well as the books I read personally. And I make visible the ways in which I use it, how it is truly an invaluable piece of my reading life and identity as a reader. I model thinking aloud and the ways that I stop and jot as I read aloud or teach mini lessons, and I also invite my students to study it, get to know me as a reader. It becomes a tool for reflection for all of us.

While reader’s notebooks are artifacts that can guide inquiry and inform teaching, they are really so much more. As I brought my reading life to the forefront of my classroom, students began to know the me behind Mrs. Bowman. My reader’s notebook become a window into a world, the world of word lovers. As they peeked behind the curtain, they caught a glimpse of the word lover and knew me in a new and different way. The books I treasured and the lines that resonated with me, my questions and reflections – they all seemed to make me more real, more human in their eyes. Most wonderful of all, my love of words inspired their own reading lives.

As I bean to show up with the kind of authenticity I expected of them, it was as if they were also sharing a little bit of their minds, and also their souls, with me. As they read, I watched them them slow down, as if they really noticed the words for the first time, and were struck by the meaning – and the person- behind them. And then I watched them reread, collect the words, arrange them, and love them. They would write their own. – questions, theories, wonderings, quotes, and reflections to favorite parts. The more authentic I kept my notebook and dedicated time to using and sharing it, the more theirs flourished. No premade packets, no worksheets – just pencil, paper, and promise. Where freedom and trust thrived and not rigidity and control, their notebooks become organic, authentic extensions of their reading selves. They became words people.


(A few examples of students’ entries in their reader’s notebooks)

Remember when I said I let them in on our secret? That’s not completely true. I should have known all along that they knew the power of words. Before they ever step into our classrooms, they understand what words can do. The know the potential of words to heal, to hurt. The words are inside of them, we just need to provide them with the encouragement, trust, and opportunity to share them. So words person, I encourage you, as you begin this new school year, to let go a little, and to allow your students the freedom and joy that a reader’s notebook can offer. But most of all, I invite you to lead with authenticity – to bare your soul a little, and to wear your reading life, your love of words, on your sleeve.

WVCTE is wondering… How do you make your thinking visible for your students? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jessica Michael Bowman is an unabashed bibliophile and advocate of lifelong literacy. She is currently a literacy coach in Berkeley County, WV and the WVCTE Vice President of Elementary Affairs. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from all things literacy, she’s passionate about her family, traveling, and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.


American Literature–going rogue

And we’re off….a new school year!  That certainly was a quick summer (aren’t they all) and like many of you, I’m positive you spent some of it thinking, planning, thinking, planning and doing even more thinking and planning about this year.

I’ve been thinking about my American Literature course and planning on how to enhance it to increase relevance to my students.  This year, my WVCTE column is going to ride in that lane:  American Literature and I want to engage you in the conversation.

Like so many educators, I’ve taught American Literature chronologically:  Native American myths –> Puritan –>  Gothic –>  Transcendentalism  –>  Harlem Renaissance  –>  Moderns.   I’m tossing this out of the window and am moving towards themes.   Similar content but shuffling the order to introduce kiddos to text in a more engaging and meaningful way without turning them off in August with the preachings of Jonathan Edwards!

As I started to research various themes to use for American Literature, I uncovered lists of possibilities; however, I decided to focus on the following themes this year:

Searching for Identity
Examining Our Values
Finding a Voice
Analyzing the American Dream
Seeking Justice

Last year I published a column on developing text sets so that is where I started this summer.  Each of these themes has an anchor text which is enriched through nonfiction texts, short stories, editorials, poems, and podcasts.  I also developed a reflective writing assignment that aligns with the theme.

Theme (the new way)

Movement (the old way)

Anchor Text

Search for Identity Transcendentalism Into the Wild
Examining Our Values Puritan and Gothic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Crucible
Finding a Voice Historical Documents Historical Documents and nonfiction literature circles
Analyzing the American Dream Harlem Renaissance and Moderns The Great Gatsby
Seeking Justice Moderns and Protest Things They Carried

This new way of introducing curriculum is far from perfect and will probably be tweaked throughout the year as I add and delete texts.  But it’s a start….

Social media has been a good source of resources and thinking as I’ve noodled around this with updated scope and sequence.  In particular, there are two FaceBook groups where the sharing and discussion is rich.

Teachers of American Lit

Creative HS American Lit teachers

I’m going live with this in T-5 days.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!


WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation.  What are you doing this year in your American Literature classroom?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University and is the Vice President of the Greater Kanawha Valley Reading Council.  She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass but you can find her on Instagram at @stahlecheryl.  Cheryl presents professional development at local and state conferences throughout the year—make sure to stop by and introduce yourself!  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.  This year, Cheryl is working on her Superintendent certification….more to come on this.

It’s Lit! Nonfiction Literature Circles (AKA 5 books you need to add to your summer stack)


I’ve experimented with literature circles off and on over the past 6 years. Some years, I’ve loved it. Sometimes, it drives me bonkers (I sometimes struggle with giving up classroom control). Using Literature circles is a balance between keeping kids accountable during their reading and making sure you don’t commit “readicide” on the text.

First semester lit circles killed the books. We did role sheets, plus Flipgrid videos, plus taking notes on each other’s videos, plus replying to videos. It was too much. The kids got confused and didn’t enjoy the experience. Which is a problem, since the entire purpose of literature circles is to get kids to have choice and enjoy what they read.

Though I still am not fully comfortable with how literature circles work in my classroom, my AP class had an excellent experience in 2nd semester.

I nixed the role sheets altogether, and after the first bad experience with Flipgrid, I nixed that too. My students were responsible for doing the following for each Lit Circle meeting day:

  • 1 Insight: 1 5-6 sentence paragraph discussing what made you think in this section. Consider the following questions if they are helpful:
    • What realization did you have in this section about a theme, event, or person?
    • What connections do you see between this section and other texts or discussions?
    • What quote or statistic [if relevant] made you think? Why?
  • 3 Discussion Questions for your group. These should be DEEP questions, not comprehension
  • 1 Quote analysis: Quote may be marked in your book with a sticky note]. 5 sentence analysis of a quote [this is NOT summary. FOCUS ON LANGUAGE]

I also chose to allot about half a period to the discussion circles each week. This allowed for minimal off-task time.

The culminating assignment of this semester’s literature circles was a book review of their text. I told my students that the best reviews would be shared in this blog, so you’ll see them below. Click here the directions for this assignment.

I feared that the book reviews would become book reports, so we first set out to explore book review mentor texts. I chose 5 professional reviews from the mentor text dropbox on the moving writers’ website.

With their literature circle group, students read through the texts and made a list of style observations with these questions to guide them.

  • What is the format of book reviews? What do you notice about the organization? Where are paragraphs divided? Why?
  • Sentence structure. What kinds of sentences are used? When is it varied? What is the effect?
  • Content: How does the reviewer give evidence for their claims without revealing major spoilers? Are quotes used? How and where?
  • Other style observations: What do you notice about word choice or use of figurative language?

Students came up with this list of “writing moves” for professional book reviews:

  • Engaging intro: often a quote from the book being reviewed
  • A summary of the story is usually early in the writing. Avoid spoilers!
  • Interesting title
  • Graphics, book cover, or picture of the author are included.
  • Varied paragraph structure, few long paragraphs. Paragraph may be one sentence.
  • Quotes, usually of beautiful language, are used throughout
  • Figurative language (often metaphors) are used
  • Reviewer may talk about personal experience that relates to the book.

After the discussion, my students wrote their own reviews of their texts. All our books for this unit were nonfiction, primarily memoirs since this was for my AP Language Class.

Here are some excerpts from the best reviews that were submitted. Check them out! And, more importantly, check out these books! These are some of the best books that I have read in the past few years, and I highly recommend adding them to your classroom. In the words of 90s literacy superhero, Levar Burton, don’t just take my word for it!


just mercy

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson:

This is part memoir, part exposé of inequalities in the legal system. This book primarily focuses on racial injustice in the prison system and argues against the death penalty. This book is by far the best book that I have read in years.

Madison W’s book review is excerpted below:

In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson manages to craft a perfect tell-all on his life that is guaranteed to take you on an emotional rollercoaster. You will go from a peaceful state of mind to an anger-filled walk around the house, all in one chapter. Take it from me, I was well-experienced with said walks during my time reading the book. He speaks of his days as a lawyer and advocate for convicts who are either wrongfully sentenced or are facing harsh penalties, including the ever-so controversial death penalty. As a man working within the prison reform system, you get an inside look at what it’s like for prisoners of all genders, ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds. The detail and emotion Stevenson put into this book makes it feel as if you are present in the situation.


Educated by Tara Westover:

Memoir of Brigham Young University & Harvard graduate, who had no formal education. Westover was raised in an abusive, isolated Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. Her story covers abuse, the value of education, religion, and a variety of other topics

An excerpt from Brooke M’s review is below:

Westover’s memoir is a story about being in a whole new strange world, where she first feels like a stranger in it, but she ends up being able to figure out her way around. Her story is an inspirational story for her viewers, as she is living proof that anyone can make it in life, even if they first feel like a stranger in a new world. Also, she shows her viewers that is it okay to miss one’s home, as she mentions that she couldn’t help but miss her home in the mountains while she was away, stating, “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain…” Her hometown was what truly made her into the person she is today, as she stated, “I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me.” She stated this to teach her audience that how one starts is not how they will end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.

Westover’s memoir is a story of defiance, in which she was able to set her whole life straight, even after all those hardships she was forced to face. She showed her audience that sometimes, separation between loved ones are for the better, as it will slowly bring peace. Westover teaches that choices in life are very important, as each choice forms you into who you will become, no matter how you started. She is living proof that no matter how hard life will treat you, you must just keep battling through it all head on, never giving up.

born a crime

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah:

This is the memoir of South African Comedian and talk show host, Trevor Noah. In addition to telling his story, Noah discusses apartheid in South Africa, and connects this to still existing racial inequalities in the United States.

Here is an excerpt Maree D’s review:

In his autobiography, Trevor Noah recounts brilliantly what it was like to grow up as a mixed child, not quite black, but not quite white (as he says), in a racial divided society. Through twists and turns he guides the reader through the bustling streets and confusing relationships of South Africa, carefully crafting an image previously unimaginable to outsiders. He shares the joys of his youth, the struggles within his family, and the uncontrollable sense of isolation caused by his skin. Though the sporadic story-telling may leave some bewildered, a careful read of the material can provide an unparalleled look at race, power, and human nature. . .

Noah has risen out of the flames of struggle and systematic loneliness to craft a book centered on what now seems to be an archaic institution, as well as one that carries, living, breathing, depth and courage. Especially in light of growing tensions between racial groups in the United States. . .  It is a book that values honesty and compassion in a world of hate and labels, supporting itself with accounts of religious fulfillment, childhood dreams, and, most importantly, motherly love.

first they killed my father

First They Killed my Father by Luong Ung:

This is a memoir from a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide that occurred from 1975-1979. It is written from the perspective of Luong as a 6-year-old as the events transpire.

Here is an excerpt from the review of Thomas S:

Luong’s journey took her from collective to collective, child-soldier camp, and hidden away under bags of fish to Viet Nam. Her experience is emboldened in her book recounting the horrifying experience in vivid detail, and her testimony stands against any form of denial that the Khmer Rouge (the Angkar) brutally murdered millions. Her book, “First They Killed My Father,” is an astounding read that emanates in its readers the same feelings she felt during her time. . . This work of literature was written for the time she was a youth, no more than 10 years old towards the end, and the childish innocence and aged analysis is seen as she seamlessly transfers between the two passive voices.

This book stands as a testament against coerced government and military oppression. While the Cold War and communism may have been the fears by people during this time, the Authoritarian response is still a negligent one towards the majority. Luong writes, “they are destroyers of things.” It is the perfect alignment of the childish view on atrocious circumstance.


Dopesick by Beth Macy:

Also one of the best books I’ve read. Dopesick details the path from mass prescription of high-powered pain killers to the current Opioid Epidemic in America. A large portion of the book focuses on its role in Appalachia.

Jackie K’s book review is excerpted below:

In my personal opinion, I believe she truly portrayed her thoughts and evidence extremely well. There were so many touching stories, quotes, and shocking facts about the pharmaceutical industry. I do not think this book changed my mind or opinions on anything, but I believe it could have an impact on people who don’t normally sympathize with addicts. It gives many examples of how so many kids and citizens have been forced into addiction through prescriptions that they never wanted in the first place which I believe could influence prejudiced people to reevaluate their views on addiction.


WVCTE is wondering, what is your experience with choice reading and literature circles? What tips do you have? What is on your summer reading list? Join the conversation on Twitter by following @WVCTE or chatting with us on Facebook.

Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. This will be her last blog post as Ms. Gearhart, as she will become Mrs. Kisner in 26 days. She and her students are struggling with a new nickname and welcome suggestions.