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3 Tips to Prevent Challenges to Your Curriculum

Banned Books Week

Imagine being so excited to introduce your favorite novel to a new group of students only to have a student say, "My mom said I can't read that book."

It's every teacher's fear to have a parent or community member question what you are teaching. Unfortunately, opposition to the reading material we select for our classrooms and libraries is so popular, a week was created in the 1980s to advocate for and educate the public about challenged and banned books. September 23rd kicks off this year's Banned Books Week.

During the sixteen years I taught in my last school district, two books were formally challenged by groups of parents. One group of junior (grade 11) parents opposed Robert Cormier's We All Fall Down because of its "inappropriate language" and depiction of teenagers doing "immoral" things.

Five years later, another group of parents of elementary-aged students opposed the read-aloud of Todd Parr's The Family Book during Tolerance Week because of the line "Some families have two moms or two dads." The parents believed it was "pushing a gay agenda."

Banned Books Week

Can you guess which one was banned? Probably not the one you thought...

In 2012, The Family Book was permanently removed from the elementary library and the curriculum for Tolerance Week (ironic, right?). We All Fall Down was retained in 2007 after a select committee deemed it to be age-appropriate. It is still taught in grade 11.

We had two different outcomes because the new (at the time) administrators were unaware of the proper procedure put in place five years earlier. Instead, they left the decision up to the school board who voted to ban The Family Book from the elementary and all GLSEN materials from being used in the entire district. Their decision was--and still is--a shameful embarrassment for our district that could have easily been prevented.

In recognition of Banned Books Week, I wanted to share my experience and tips for preventing a book (or any material) from being challenged AND what you can do if a parent or community member does challenge it.

Let your students and parents know at the beginning of the year which novels, short stories, plays, poems, nonfiction passages, movies, etc. your students will cover throughout the year. Distribute a paper copy (as part of your syllabus) and post it on your website; make it easy for parents and students to find. This way if anything is questioned, you can point out that you informed students and parents at the beginning of the year what was going to be covered.

Send home a permission slip before reading or viewing material that could be questionable. In your permission slip, state your objectives for the unit or lesson and explain how the material you are reading or showing is vital to the learning process. Let the parent/guardian know that if permission is not granted, an alternative book or material that covers the same learning standards will be used in its place for their child. This will alleviate students trying to use the permission slip as a way out of doing the work altogether. You can download a free permission slip template here.

Free Download Editable Permission Slip

I began celebrating Banned Books Week in my high school classroom after We All Fall Down was challenged to educate students about their freedom to read and the danger of censorship. I have an activity where students can choose if they want a piece of candy or a carrot stick for a snack. Halfway through the activity, I stop and take all the pieces of candy back and let them know that I forgot that I had received a complaint from a parent (or community member) about the dangers of sugar, so no one gets to choose candy. This sparks a great discussion about how one complaint affects the freedom of choice for all students.

  One of my favorite displays to coincide with this activity is an interactive bulletin board showing the reasons a book was challenged or banned. Students lift the flap to reveal the title. They are always shocked to see the titles of some of their favorite books revealed. I will also select books from my classroom library and wrap them with the Caution Labels. The curiosity alone is enough to make a student want to check out a book labeled "Drug use, profanity, offensive language, and considered 'pervasively vulgar'" (which are the reasons The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has been challenged).

The Hate U Give - Banned Books Week

While these measures will help prevent some challenges, you may still encounter opposition in your district. When I began teaching and selling materials for The Hunger Games in 2009, I soon realized that opposition to certain books was far too common. Teachers began reaching out to me asking what they should do when parents complain about the book. Here is the advice I shared with them; it applies to any curriculum, whether it is a book, video/movie, poem, short story, etc.

Find out from your building principal if your school has a plan in place and what it is. If not, follow these steps to be prepared before it happens:

Know exactly what to do when a parent/guardian or group/organization comes forward with a complaint. For instance, if talking directly to the parent/guardian and offering an alternative for the student doesn't work, take the next step and contact your department head and building principal. From there, an example procedure should be handled by the principal and/or department head and may include the following steps:

   1. Send the parent/guardian/group a formal letter asking if they wish to file a formal request for reconsideration of the material being taught. Include a reconsideration request form in the letter (see below) and give a deadline for when it needs to be filled out and returned to the principal (10 days seems standard).

  2. Have a committee in place for handling the request. This committee should be appointed by the principal and may include an administrator, a classroom teacher, a language arts teacher or reading specialist, a librarian, a community member, and a student. The committee will meet and discuss the request. They will also need to be familiar with the material being challenged (whether it's a book, video, etc.). After reviewing both sides (the teacher's and the parent/guardian/group's), the committee will make a final decision on whether the material(s) should be removed or not.

  3. Make sure the procedure is part of the school's handbook and/or posted publicly (i.e. on the school's website) so future administrators and teachers are aware of the proper protocol. Have copies of all documents ready to download and distribute, if needed. (See below for free editable forms.)

This plan is based on the American Library Association's (ALA) advice for schools and libraries facing a challenge. You can find numerous resources on their website.

I have also created editable documents based on their drafts that you can download here.

banned books week

Most importantly, do not let a challenge get you down. One or two or even a group of parents challenging the materials in your classroom in no way reflects your teaching ability or your good judgment. Do not back down. Many novels have been challenged over the years but that doesn't mean they should be removed from the shelves or from the curriculum.

Even though they may not be vocal, you probably have far more people on your side than you realize. Reach out to other teachers, your followers on social media, and the ALA (you can report a challenge here) and I guarantee you will find parents and teachers who will support your cause.

If you have any questions or concerns, please comment below. Also, check out these amazing resources for books that are frequently challenged or banned:

To Kill a Mockingbird Bundle by Room 213

The Giver Unit Plan by Presto Plans

Of Mice and Men Escape Room by The Classroom Sparrow

Scaffolding Writing Instruction: Why I Use Sentence Frames

When it comes to teaching, one of the most beneficial things I try to do for all of my students in every lesson is provide layers of differentiation and scaffolding so that I reach as many kids as I can. When it comes to teaching writing, one way I scaffold instruction comes in the form of sentence frames. But first, an anecdote.

I’ll never forget my first teaching job. It was a long-term substitute position teaching ninth grade English to students who were severely behind grade-level. I was still in my pre-service teaching days, and I was completely unprepared. The first couple of weeks were awful. My classroom management skills were abysmal, the kids were not cooperating, and I was beginning to second-guess my career choice as an educator. Yes, it was THAT bad.
It wasn’t until one day when I had, at the time what I perceived to be, a crazy idea. I was going to get those kids to work whether they wanted to or not….and like I said, my classroom management wasn’t something to brag about. After reading a short passage with the students, I wanted them to write a brief paragraph responding to the text. I was desperate. All earlier attempts of assigning a writing prompt in the class failed. And it failed because of me. These students were not at the level, both language wise and ability wise, for what I was assigning earlier. However, at the time, I didn't realize this.
Scaffolding writing instruction in the secondary ELA classroom. So, in response to this situation, I wrote a fill-in-the-blank paragraph on the board before class started. After reading the selection, I slowly read the fill-in-the-blank paragraph aloud to the kids and modeled different types of responses that were appropriate for the blanks. Then I asked my students to copy the example from the board onto their papers and fill in the blanks with their thoughts.
And let me tell you something: it worked!

Not only did it work, but the students ALL sat quietly and wrote their responses. They were working. They were engaged. They were demonstrating their understanding, and they were trying their best. Afterward, I had them take turns reading their responses aloud in the classroom. Again, I had 100% participation.
However, this strategy only worked because I experienced a complete failure before this victory. I wasn’t meeting my students’ needs, and I wasn’t giving them appropriately differentiated material that matched their ability levels. I just expected these ninth graders to be able to sit in their seats and write because after all, that is what I was able to do when I was in the ninth grade. That failure is one-hundred percent on me, and I own it. I was expecting work that did not match their capabilities. And, as a direct result of that, I created an environment in which the students didn’t feel comfortable. They weren’t comfortable with the work, nor were they comfortable with me. And that was a big problem!
This was one of the most significant learning experiences of my teaching career. And I am very thankful that it’s a lesson I learned early on. We can’t just teach and expect grade-level, common core work from high school students if they aren’t there. There are so many outside factors that we must take into consideration when it comes to students’ learning equations, and as teachers, we have to acknowledge and accept that sometimes things are out of both our hands and our students’ hands. So, this is where sentence frames come into play.
A student won’t know how to properly craft an argumentative claim about a piece of nonfiction text if he or she doesn’t understand how the parts of speech work together. Students can’t learn, and study, and work on mastering nouns and verbs and prepositions if outside forces, forces in which they have absolutely no control of, are working against them. There are students who are hungry, anxious, homeless, victims of neglect and abuse, responsible for the care of their siblings, and doubting their existence. We owe it to our all of our students to understand this.

We have to go back to the basics and build our middle school and high school students up, even if that means teaching concepts and skills at the beginning of the year that are five grade-levels below what we teach. By teaching to our students’ needs rather than to what the grade-level standards dictate, we can then begin to move toward grade-level skills as the year progresses. Afterall, we can't teach the quadratic equation to kids who don't understand simple multiplication.
One of the biggest reasons why I use sentence frames in my classroom is because they help every student. Sentence frames are not just for our EL and below-grade-level students; they benefit every single learner in the classroom. And yes, I even use them with my college-bound juniors and seniors because sentence frames model concise writing and help reinforce academic writing.
As educators, we are more well-read than our students. We’ve read works by many different authors of varying abilities and have seen how authors craft their stories and arguments. Our students, not so much. It is our job to teach them how to engage with, understand, and respond to a text.

Some teachers may shy away from providing students with sentence frames because they may believe that in doing so, the work is becoming “too easy” or “too watered down.” However, if it is what our students need, shouldn’t we be doing it? Giving our students structure and sentence frames isn’t diluting the work. It’s not watering it down, and it certainly isn’t making it too easy. It is teaching them how to respond. A sentence frame provides our students with the structure they need to help them get their thoughts from their brain onto their paper. Sentence frames don’t tell students what or how to think, they show them how to structure their ideas logically.
As time goes on and students utilize sentence frames in class, you’ll begin to notice that students stop using the frames verbatim and start adding their own style to the frame. This is progress. As even more time goes on, you’ll notice that some of your students won’t use the frames you provided them with, but that they were able to write loosely within the structure entirely on their own. This is learning!
As a result of this learning experience, I created my differentiated writing responses for literature. For each writing topic, I created two handouts -each with a different level of differentiation. The level with less scaffolding guides students through the response and helps students organize their thoughts. The handout with more scaffolding provides a series of sentence frames to help students learn how to write academically about the literature they read. These organizers were game-changers in my classroom. Not only did I create generic scaffolded writing prompts for every piece of literature, but I also created some for specific works of literature: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, and Lord of the Flies.

I believe so much in sentence frames and providing students with differentiated writing scaffolds that I am sharing this differentiated writing task with you. Click HERE to download a sample writing assignment that you can use in your classroom with any piece of fiction. This is a direct excerpt from my Differentiated Writing Tasks for Any Text resource, and I know it will help all of your writers, not just the struggling ones.
Here are some of my favorite sentence frames to use in the classroom. These can be used menu style where students create their paragraphs by selecting which frames to use, or you can use them for specific responses.

Sentence Frames to Talk about a Text:
According to _________, one reason why _____________.
Furthermore, __________ argues that ___________ because ___________.
As stated in the text, _________________.

Sentence Frames to Talk about Literature:
In the short story, the author describes ____________.
After ____________, the main character then _______________ which ____________.
The theme of the story is fully developed when __________________.

Sentence Frames to Agree with Evidence:
Confirming with ______________, further evidence shows ________________.
Similar to _____________, __________ also suggests _______________.
Likewise, ____________ also states ______________.

Sentence Frames to Argue or Disagree:
Even though __________________, there is evidence to believe that _____________.
While __________ states that ____________, contradicting evidence from __________ proves that _______________.
Despite ____________, _____________ argues that ________________.

Additional Resources for Scaffolding Writing
Sentence Fluency by Stacey Lloyd
Narrative Writing by Addie Williams
Literary Quote Analysis by Nouvelle ELA

10 Diverse Books to Add to Your Classroom Library (Fall 2018)

Hi, friends! It’s Danielle from Nouvelle ELA, and I’m here to share with you my most anticipated reads for this fall. I’m constantly on the lookout for diverse books to add to my classroom library, and I’m excited to share with you some soon-to-be-published titles. Also, keep reading to find out how to score free books for your classroom library!

I cohost the YA Cafe Podcast, a roundtable discussion about a new YA book each week. Our show breaks down into a spoiler-free and spoiler section, and our whole goal is to help you figure out which books you’d like to add to your classroom library. We’ll help you know which books hook reluctant readers, which books will resonate with your avid sports fans, and which books maybe need a content warning.

10 Diverse YA Books for Fall 2018

Here are ten books we’ll be talking about in the fall on the podcast and in IG stories. I haven’t finished reading all of these books yet, but I’ve been researching them, and I’m confident in my recommendations.

1. Mirage by Somaiya Daud (28 August 2018)

Eighteen-year-old Amani has grown up on a poor moon under the rule of an oppressive empire. She dreams of a life where she and her family can safely farm and barter for what they need to survive, and maybe even have a little leisure time left to read her precious poetry. But when Amani is kidnapped and taken to the Royal Palace, she learns she must act as the body double for the cruel princess and put her very life on the line for a regime that seeks to wipe out her culture.

This is a book of court intrigue, rich prose, and a connection to spirituality and tradition. I LOVED this book, and you can read my full review here.

2. Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan (04 September 2018)

Everyone in the universe knows his name. Everyone in the universe fears him. But no one realizes that notorious outlaw Ia Cocha is a seventeen-year-old girl. Ia is a skilled pirate and a brutal outlaw who risks everything to fight the imperialist nation that destroyed her home. She is captured and placed in the regime’s military academy, and everything she’s every believed is tested.

This is a thrilling sci-fi adventure with a bold heroine.
This is an anthology of short stories written by authors your students will definitely know and love, as well as some newcomers. Every story is an #OwnVoices story, meaning that authors are writing protagonists who share in their identity and experiences. The stories range in setting and genre, so your students will be sure to find something that suits them.

I enjoyed Nijkamp’s This is Where it Ends and Before I Let Go, so I’m really looking forward to reading this anthology. I’ve started it, and am intrigued so far!

[This post includes Amazon links for your convenience.If you choose to order through these links, Amazon will give me a small kickbackthat I put towards maintaining my teaching blog. This kickback does not increase your costs.]

4. A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney (25 September 2018)

An urban-fantasy reimagining, A Blade So Black follows Alice’s journey from real-world Atlanta to the nightmare world of Wonderland. When her mentor is poisoned, Alice has to embark on a dangerous journey to find the antidote. The twists and turns take her through numerous perils, and she has to stay focused and determined to keep from losing her head.

Y’all. I LOVE reimaginings, and this one sounds right up my alley! I love dark fairy tales like The Hazel Wood, and I think A Blade So Black will really amp up the tension to the next level.

5. Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa (02 October 2018)

One thousand years ago, the great Kami Dragon was summoned to grant a single terrible wish—and the land of Iwagoto was plunged into an age of darkness and chaos. In this bright new saga, the half-kitsune, half-human Yumeko sets out on a brave quest for survival. She meets one of many who would steal the scroll for themselves and attempt to harness the dragon’s wish, a young Samurai Kage. Kage and Yumeko form a fragile alliance to find the scroll, with a horde of demons at their backs and the weight of survival on their shoulders.

This is the follow-up to A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue, but it focuses on a new main character: Monty’s sister Felicity. In a society that believes that only men possess the intellect and determination to go to medical school, Felicity wants to study to become a doctor. She works against everything her parents tell her to want for her life in order to pursue her own dreams. Felicity gets an opportunity to research with one of her idols, as long as she can make the journey across Europe to meet him. She has no money to get there, though, and is forced to accept the patronage of a woman who insists on accompanying her. Soon, Felicity is thrust into another romp of a cross-continent adventure, and must keep her wits about her to get out of the dangerous situation.

Gentleman’s Guide was a fun and fast-paced book, and I’ve no doubt this one will be equally awesome. Felicity was a rockstar, even as supporting cast, and I can’t wait to have her front and center.

7. The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young (02 October 2018)

After a long battle with cancer, Sasha Cade dies. Her best friend Raquel is totally devastated. When she receives a letter from Sasha, Raquel is ready to do anything to connect again. Sasha has created an elaborate scavenger hunt for Raquel in an attempt to share one last secret with her friend. Her letter leads Raquel to her grave and introduces her to a mysterious stranger and the secret only he knows.

I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m expecting it to be partly mystery, partly grief, and partly self-discovery. I think it will be great for fans of Someone Else’s Playlist.

Want to get book recommendations delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the YA Reads Newsletter!

8. Blanca y Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (09 October 2018)

Sisters, friends, and rivals… The del Signe sisters are cursed, and they know it. Their fate is wrapped up with a bevy of swans in the forest, and one day, they’ll play a twisted game that ends with one of them becoming a swan forever. But when two boys are unexpectedly drawn into the ‘game’, the spell stretches and expands, wrapping up the four fates forever.

This is a novel grounded in a fairy tale tradition, but with the rich complexities of contemporary YA. I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by Anna-Marie McLemore so far, and I’m eagerly awaiting this book.

9. Odd One Out by Nic Stone (09 October 2018)

The New York Times best-selling author of Dear Martin has brought us a new contemporary YA novel about the complications of friendship, young love, and everything in between. This isn’t your standard love triangle, but rather a rich tapestry of the complexities of loyalty and sexuality and growing into yourself. Uncertainty is highlighted here, and the “moral” is that sometimes we have to live in that uncertainty for a while.

10. The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (30 October 2018)

A sweeping LGBT fantasy set in renaissance Italy featuring magic, intrigue, and a debt repaid. Teodora is a mafia don’s daughter, and slightly magical. Her magic is her secret and her shame, since she turns her family’s enemies into decorative objects: mirrors, boxes, candlesticks… When the land’s ruler sends out poisoned letters to the Five Families, Teo’s father falls ill and only she can find the antidote. She must travel disguised as a boy, and encounters numerous challenges along the way. She also meets Cielo. A magic-wielding strega, Cielo can shift between appearing as male or female, and is able to disappear into a crowd. As the two form an unlikely alliance, Teo must reconsider everything she’s ever known, especially when it comes to matters of her own heart.

I know, right? These books sound AMAZING!

Getting Free Books for Your Classroom Library

One question I get all the time is how I’m able to read books for free and in advance for our podcast. This is a great question that has implications for building your classroom library.

Basically, the publisher sends me early copies of books for free in exchange for my fair and honest review. Read more about how to get early copies, and how to involve students in the review process.

I also recommend involving students in the book selection process. You can have students apply to be part of a Classroom Library Advisory Board and help you pre-read some of the advanced copies you receive. You can also download this FREE review sheet for students.

Be sure to check out the YA Cafe Podcast for more in-depth reviews for teachers and librarians. :) We also send out a monthly newsletter about more books you may enjoy.

Happy reading!

Resources from other Coffee Shop teachers:
Getting Your Teens to Actually Read (blog post by Room 213)
Genre Exploration Flipbook (by The Classroom Sparrow)
Text Features Preview Activity (by Addie Williams)

3 Ways to Make Time for Independent Reading

Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes.

So you'd love to let your students choose their own novels, but you've got a set curriculum to teach and full class novels to get through. Readers' Workshop is just not possible at this time, yet you'd still like to give your kids the freedom to read what they want.  How do you do it? How do you squeeze it in? 

1. Read for fun with whatever time you can devote to it
The best way to incorporate choice reading into your class is to do it just for fun, with no grades involved.  Start each class with silent reading - even if you can only devote five minutes of your class time to it each day. This isn't a lot of time, but if you don't require that students read a certain number of pages or books, the amount of time that you can spend on independent reading won't matter because they are just reading for enjoyment.

But how do you do that if you aren't holding your kids accountable for their reading? How do you convince them (as well as parents and admin) that it's ok to devote time to something you aren't assessing? 

2. Use choice novels as mentor texts to teach skills:
Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes.
You may have novels that you are required to cover, but you also need to teach your kids the skills that they will use to analyze those texts. For example, you might be teaching your students to determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings and to analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone. You can teach them this, using their choice novels as mentor texts.

Present your lesson as you normally would, and then have the kids look for examples of their author's deliberate word choice in the books that they are reading. Once they have located an example, they share it with a partner who will give them feedback on whether it's an effective example or not. You can also circulate while the kids are reading or working on an activity and ask each one to show you a place where their writer has made a deliberate word choice. Note the students who have had trouble identifying author craft so you can work with them later.

With this method, it doesn't matter what page students are on, or how many chapters have been read, because they just need to look for examples in the novels they are reading, and they can find those at any point in the book. You can even choose to have silent reading after your lesson, so students can watch for word choice as they read. This strategy gives students practice in recognizing the moves that writers make with books they enjoy, and then they can apply that skill when it's time to do so with their class novels. You can read about this process in more detail on this blog post.

3. Use choice novels as a basis for assessment of other outcomes: 
I suggested above that you don't assess students based on what or how much they read. However, you can still keep them accountable if you use their reading as a way to assess other outcomes. 

Let's look more closely at how you can assess a specific standard or outcome using choice texts:

Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes: use text-to-text connections

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Instead of asking your students to compare two full class texts, create assignments that allow them to use their independent novels. For example, you could start with this writing promptin what ways are the characters and events in your novel similar to those of our full class text? Brainstorm ideas; then, choose one to explore more fully. 

There are so many universal themes in literature that students can almost always make a connection, even if it's just that characters need to make decisions, or there is a problem that must be solved. Ask them to reflect on these links in a prompt, then put them in small groups to discuss them with others. Next, they can extend this skill by making connections to their classmates' texts. All of a sudden, students have used their choice novels to build skills for thinking, writing and speaking. And, because they are doing so with a novel that they have chosen to read, it's much more likely that they will enjoy the process.

Ways to make time for independent or choice reading in middle and high school English classes-make text-to-text connections
You could also use choice novels as a basis for a longer writing assignment. For example, if you want to explore why Macbeth gives into temptation, give students this prompt: Is there a time when your character has to make a choice between doing the right thing and giving into temptation or peer pressure? Then, they can write a longer piece that compares their character's situation to Macbeth's. 

What I love most about this activity is that text-to-text connections help students build critical thinking skills. The reality is that with most texts we do in class, the internet is FULL of answers for students. With one or two clicks, the thinking is done. However, when students write something that makes connections to their choice novel, they can't easily find something similar on the internet. Therefore, by requiring text-text connections, you will put students in a position where they need to do more critical thinking -- and you can still work on the skills that your curriculum requires. For example, if you ask them to compare a character from your class novel to one in their book, they will still need to understand and analyze character, use evidence from the texts and write an organized piece with fully developed ideas.

I hope this post has given you some strategies that you can use to make time for independent reading in your classroom. Click here to get more information about making connections, as well as a free editable assignment page for your students. 

My friends here at the Coffee Shop have some products that might help you as well:

Secondary Sara: Book of the Month Club
The Classroom Sparrow: Reading Escape Room
Presto Plans: Independent Novel Discussion Questions
Addie Education: Chapter Response Pages For ANY Novel!
The Daring English Teacher: Character Analysis Growth Mindset Activities
Nouvelle ELA: Creative Reading Task Cards
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